Thursday, April 15, 2010

Freedom of Speech--how far and when

Of all people, those involved in blogging, both as blog writers and as blog commenters, are aware of the power of freedom of speech. Here we are, day after day, saying what we want to say with no one telling us we can't. Some blogs are more open to comments that disagree with what has been written and some delete those comments which disagree or refuse to publish them. Some blogs are clearly in favor of one particular viewpoint while others attempt to be more balanced. But regardless of the orientation of the blog and its content, the blog is out there. Readers can choose to read what is written or leave and never return. No one forces us to read or not to read. No one edits our content but we, ourselves.

But how far should freedom of speech go and under what particular circumstances? We already know that freedom of speech is not 100% guaranteed in every circumstance. You are not granted the right to yell "fire!" in a crowded movie theatre. That's prosecutable public speech. You cannot publically say you are going to murder someone so they had better watch their back. That, too, could be prosecutable. Telling public lies about someone and slandering them could land you in legal hot water.

What about public protestations of a political or religious or ideological nature? Are all such protestations protected as free speech? Many argue that it is precisely speech of this nature that is the foundation for the idea of freedom of speech. But is it and should it be protected in each and every instance?

An interesting case is heading up to the Supreme Court for adjudication. It clearly hinges on the concept of freedom of speech. In a nutshell, a distressed father is taking on a fundamentalist group over their having picketed and protested at his son's funeral, causing him severe emotional stress among other things. Many who recognize that the picketing and protesting was hurtful and could have or should have been done differently or not at that particular time and place are, nonetheless, worried that a judgement against the fundamentalist group would be sending us down the slippery slope of curtailment of freedom of speech.

Part of the case hinges on the idea of public versus private. One side is arguing that a funeral is a private affair and that the freedom to speak against the dead person is not part of the right of freedom of speech. In other cases the private/public distinction has been key. A person can hang a swastika in their living room and make any comments about it they would like. Should that person go and paint a swastika on a synogogue that is punishable as a hate crime, trumping freedom of speech.

It should be interesting to see how the Court votes on the case and what arguments they use to support their decision.

To see a copy of a news story about the case, go to


NonymousG said...

There's also the problem of the NYT and anonymous comments. Is that still Freedom of Speech I wonder, as you'll still be exercise it?

profk_offspring said...

Well...there is fundamentally a difference between holding up a protest sign and painting a swastika on a building. One is destruction of property (a crime), the other is "speech". Freedom of speech doesn't mean a PETA member gets to dump blood on a fur wearer without paying a penalty. It does allow them to scream slurs at the wearer.

On the face of it, as repugnant as the group's behavior is, they didn't actually disrupt the proceedings in question and conducted their protest on public land. There is no private/public aspect (by his own admission, Snyder didn't hear or see the protesters). As sympathetic as I am to Snyder (generally speaking, the defendants in these kinds of cases are lowlifes--here is no exception), I can't see the Supreme Court ruling in his favor. The crowded theater example just doesn't hold water. I do, however, think that the judgment forcing Snyder to pay the court costs was inappropriate.

The big issue here is one of civility (which is seemingly dying in this country), not speech. Just because one is free to do something, doesn't mean one should. As a journalist I'm utterly astounded at how many of my brethren claim freedom of speech and press to engage in a myriad amount of loathesome behavior.

As for the hate crime issue: I wish the Supreme Court would obliterate the entire concept of the hate crime, which is essentially being punished for what you think, not for what you do. That is most definitely a consitutional abomination. If you kill (assault or whatever) someone, it shouldn't matter whether you did it because he was black, Jewish, or he cheated you. The end result is the same and that's what someone should be getting punished for.