free speech

Americans love the idea of free speech. We are a country born of treason and political dissent. So, we have to be mindful of the right of others to stir things up from time to time. The concept is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
On its face of it, Congress, and by implication the states, can in no way limit, challenge, prohibit, or punish the right of citizens to speak. So that said - can we threaten, cajole, intimidate, utter profanity, or say anything that comes to mind? No way.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that one does not have the right to jump up in a crowded theater and falsely shout "fire!". An obvious threat to the theater's patrons safety justifies prosecuting the bum who might create panic.

The FCC has limited the choice of words that can be said on the television. There are the secret seven words, so secret, that they can't even be uttered on television. The FCC acts to protect the tender ears of our children and the morals of thegood public. The power of the FCC to limit speech on television clearly conflicts with the First Amendment. During the 1950's, Lenny Bruce among others repeatedly tested the ability of the government to muzzle speech. That the FCC can limit speech is due to the fact that television stations are granted licenses to broadcast. The license is based on public good and no good ever came from profanity and the like during the dinner hour. Cable television will change the rules.

The more controversial limitations of free speech stem from cases involving threatening language. What about the rappers like Tupac and the genre of Gansta rap? Many rappers glorify violence and create a culture of intimidation and fear. Mahogany Brown, a Richmond Virginia radio host told, “It really depends on how [they] speak about it. It’s important for artists to speak out against violence, ... However, too many rappers take a nonchalant approach to violence and crime, sending a message that it’s cool to indulge in such behavior." Vague suggestions of violence against police, the authorities, and others in song have been tolerated by communities in the name of artistic freedom.

And so we come to the case of Hal Turner, blogger, white supremacist, and antisemitic. Turner has a history of making threats against various public figures. These are not vague threats, but specific calls to action in no uncertain terms. In speaking of a school superintendent whose policies on gay and lesbians he disagreed with, Turner said, "I advocate parents using FORCE AND VIOLENCE against [the principal]..." Turner also spoke out on his blog against three federal court judges in Chicago who handled lawsuits involving a white supremacist.
"Let me be the first to say this plainly: These judges deserve to be killed. Their blood will replenish the tree of liberty. A small price to pay to assure freedom for millions."
He followed up this statement by publishing the names and addresses of the three judges.

Turner was charged with threatening to kill three federal appellate judges. The judges testified at trial they were shook up. At trial Turner's lawyers argued that he was trained as an agent provocateur by the FBI, and that he was just stirring things up. Turner was tried twice; both trials ended in mistrials. A third trial is scheduled for April.

Where does this leave us as a civilized society? Common sense will tell us that you can't utter words which create a direct and imminent threat to safety. Creating a stampede in a crowded theater is an obvious example. But, what happens when the threats are vague or generalized? Rap songs which target unnamed officials and individuals seem protected, even if they create harm by promoting a disrespect for authority. The Supreme Court proscribes speech where "advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."

There have been enough political killings based upon philosophies of violence. The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. is only one example of hate inspired killing. A more recent example in our own community in Wichita is the death of Dr. George Tiller, shot in the head in church.

Today, I heard of the killing by militants of six aid workers of World Vision in Pakistan. Four men and two women working for a Christian aid group, all Pakistanis whose sole purpose was to improve the quality of life for their fellow citizens. This is one example of thousands going on in many parts of the world. Killings that are incited by political or religious speech. Taliban or Turner, there is little difference in the promotion of violence to achieve their aims.

Speech that attempts to justify the murders of innocent individuals. Whether it is the tree of liberty or the purity of religion, speech that promotes killing of those with whom we don't agree is never right.

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