Free Speech

After I had this up and ready to go live a few semesters ago, the attack and shooting at the Garland events center happened. A woman, Pamela Geller, hosted a “Draw a Cartoon of Muhammad” contest. Two guys decided that they didn’t like that, and in response they attacked (unsuccessfully) with assault weapons. The attack just points up the importance of this topic. So because this event was so close to home, I’m even more interested in how this discussion goes. Other than this intro I’ve left the Discussion Board as it was….

Freedom of speech is one of the bedrock principles of American democracy. But how far should free speech be protected?

Many people in America and around the world were horrified by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in France. That attack was a response to perceived disrespect for a religious belief. Some expressed outrage that “just drawing a cartoon” could be answered by a murderous attack. Others were outraged at the content of the cartoons and either expressed complete sympathy with the attackers or said “No, the cartoonists shouldn’t have been killed, but they really shouldn’t have drawn those disrespectful cartoons, either.”

A little closer to home, we have people whose freedom of speech is being challenged as well:
– The Westboro Baptist Church has been repeatedly challenged for its protests at events including funerals of American soldiers in which their aggressively expressed message is that God is justifiably punishing America for tolerating homosexuality.
– The Ku Klux Klan (and I’ll include a link you may not want to click on — it’s graphic — to a current Klan site because it’s part of the real world we live in today) here that has been attacked for spreading its message that ethnic, cultural and religious minorities are inferior and should be banned or eliminated.
– On college campuses, groups have stolen print runs of college newspapers that contain an objectionable (to the protesters) editorial message.
– Lawmakers have proposed legislation that some say criminalizes even peaceful protest.
– Numerous people have lost their jobs or their reputations over tweets or Facebook updates that were perceived to be insensitive or insulting.

These issues are not limited to the U.S., of course. Some say (and others vehemently deny) the Obama White House supported action at the United Nations that would encourage criminalization of disrespectful speech directed at religions.

I’m sure you can think of other examples of free speech controversies.

How far should free speech be allowed to extend? I’m not talking about legally proscribed speech like joking about bombs at the airport, but about speech that is “merely” offensive or insulting or politically radical. Is it OK to insult religious beliefs? If we can’t mock or insult someone’s beliefs, do we really have free speech?

I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say!

Remember you need to make your “Initial Post” of at least 250 words and you need to complete at least two responses (the “Final Posts”) of at least 200 words each to classmates by the dates shown in the course schedule.

Remember there is one date for your Initial Post and a later date for your Final Posts.

I think I’d like to append here a few thoughts….

I don’t imagine anyone really thinks it’s “OK to insult religious beliefs.” We probably all agree that it’s rude to insult other religious beliefs, and in polite society we generally disapprove of rudeness. But perhaps rudeness is not really the question. People are rude all the time, but rude speech is not against the law unless it is intended to incite violent action. Even more…. not simply that someone may conceivably react violently, but that the speech is a) positively intended to produce a violent reaction, and b) it is actually likely to produce that reaction. Prohibiting speech because it is possible to imagine that someone may react violently is not what our law does. That would be what’s called the “Heckler’s Veto.” (Remember that I’m not a lawyer and cannot and do not give legal advice. I think in general my characterization of the state of the law is correct, though. A recent supreme court decision — Elonis v. U.S. — is consistent with this way of thinking.)

An example I have used in class (because it is so graphic it always gets a response) is that it is abhorrent, but not a violation of free speech, for someone to stand on a podium and say “I don’t like old people and think they should all be killed.” Where it would legally become no longer protected free speech would be if the speaker pointed to me sitting in the room and said “There’s Professor Moore! He’s old! Let’s kill him!” That could be “likely to incite imminent lawless action.” It would be a violation that could invite legal sanction.

My question is not “Should we as members of polite society say things that are disrespectful of others’ beliefs?” That’s too easy. Of course we shouldn’t. The question is “Should it be against the law to be disrespectful of other people’s beliefs? Should those who are disrespectful be subject to penalties handed down by the government, or convicted of a crime? Should they go to jail?”

It’s been decided repeatedly, for example, that it’s legal to burn the American flag as a protest, even though many people can think of no greater insult. Others see that as a legitimate form of political protest. And our historical judicial protection of free speech continues to allow it.

Should we make rudeness or disrespect a crime or a civil offense? Where should we draw the line? What kinds of speech should we make “sanctionable” by the law?

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