Tag Archives: freedom of expression

Editorial: The realities of free speech

The horrific massacre of journalists in Paris on Jan. 7 demonstrates what happens when the freedoms of speech and religion collide with extremism. The French collision involved Muslim radicals, but, here in the United States, we have a growing movement of right-wing extremists who need to understand the First Amendment guarantees provided by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. 

The First Amendment does not guarantee unfettered rights to either the freedom of speech or religion. It simply prohibits the government from interfering with the lawful exercise of those freedoms.

Over the holidays, we ran an outside writer’s opinion piece at www.wisconsingazette.com that called for overturning the Second Amendment. Almost immediately, we received hundreds of shocking, profanity-laced comments threatening violence against the author and us. Many commenters attempted to publish the author’s address and phone number. Some called for his murder.

When we deleted dozens of those comments, we were accused of violating the responders’ rights to free speech. Nowhere does the Constitution say that any publication is obligated to publish content that it finds offensive, and a government that forced us to do so would be in violation of our freedom of the press. 

In this issue of WiG, we have a story (page 12) about an anti-gay student at Marquette University who claims that his free speech was violated when the teaching assistant of an ethics class refused his request to initiate a class discussion about the immorality of same-sex marriage. 

The First Amendment does not permit students to hijack classrooms and turn them into forums for their controversial religious views. Just because the government does not prevent individuals from speaking their thoughts does not mean that everyone else has to publish them, give them a soapbox or even listen to them.

Similarly, the First Amendment’s guarantee of free religion does not mean that everyone is obligated to bow to everyone else’s religious views. In fact, it means the opposite.

As marriage equality gradually becomes the law of the land, we see county clerks refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — all in the name of “freedom of religion.”

But in conferring on individuals the right to practice any religion they choose, the Constitution does not say they can silence or discriminate against people who hold different beliefs. In fact, it would be impossible to guarantee religious freedom if this were the case, because the dominant religion could seek to prevent citizens from practicing other faiths. 

We find it absurd that prohibiting people from engaging in same-sex relationships is the underpinning of a major spiritual belief system. But for a large portion of fundamentalist Christians, condemning other people’s sexual practices is at the core of their faith, and we believe they are entitled by the Constitution to hold that view. They are not entitled, however, to discriminate against fellow citizens whose religions teach otherwise or against people who practice no religion and don’t care how LGBT people conduct their personal lives. 

The jihadists who gunned down 12 people at the offices of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris believed that they were exercising their religion. The paper had repeatedly mocked Islam, and fundamentalist Muslims hold that blasphemy is punishable by death — just as the Roman Catholic Church held for centuries. America’s fundamentalist Christians, some of whom have advocated successfully for making homosexuality a capital crime in other countries, should take a long look in the mirror and think about this incident. So should gun activists who call for Second Amendment critics to be put to death simply for speaking their minds.

While Fox News is using the massacre in France to call for a denunciation of Islam, we are more concerned about the followers of Fox News. They must learn where their rights end and the rights of others begin. 

Supreme Court knocks down buffer zone at abortion clinics in Massachusetts

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 26 struck down a 35-foot protest-free zone outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts.

The justices were unanimous in that ban on protests violates the First Amendment.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion, which said there are other ways to deal with protests outside Planned Parenthood centers in Boston, where the case originated.

Roberts wrote that banning protests within 35 feet from clinics throughout the state to deal with a problem at one clinic on one day a week is “hardly a narrowly tailored solution.”

Roberts and four liberal justices struck down the ban on narrow grounds. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate opinion that was critical of the Court’s practice of “giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents.”

Proponents of the buffer zone have argued that it is necessary to protect the safety of patients and staff. In 1994, a man shot and killed two receptionists and wounded five others at a clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Jesus portrait removed in Ohio public school district

A Jesus portrait that has hung in an Ohio school district since 1947 was taken down because of concerns about the potential costs of a federal lawsuit against its display.

The superintendent of Jackson City Schools said the decision was made after the district’s insurance company declined to cover litigation expenses. He said the faculty adviser and two student members of the Hi-Y Club, a Christian-based service club that the school says owns the portrait, took it down at his direction.

“At the end of the day, we just couldn’t roll the dice with taxpayer money,” Superintendent Phil Howard told The Associated Press. “When you get into these kinds of legal battles, you’re not talking about money you can raise with bake sales and car washes. It’s not fair to take those resources from our kids’ education.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation had sued on behalf of a student and two parents, calling the portrait an unconstitutional promotion of religion in a public school. The student and parents weren’t identified publicly by the groups, saying they would face backlash from portrait supporters, some of whom had suggested that they should leave town and find another school.

An ACLU spokesman said the school disclosed its decision at a federal court hearing earlier this week in Columbus. The organization will wait to see whether the portrait stays down.

“The case is still open; there was no actual ruling (by the court),” spokesman Nick Worner said. But he added there would be no reason to pursue a court order if the portrait isn’t put back up.

Hiram Sasser, an attorney with the Liberty Institute that helped defend the school, said that the Hi-Y Club could file its own lawsuit for the right to display the portrait, but he didn’t know its plans. Messages were left for the club’s adviser and legal representative. Howard said the portrait was in the club’s possession.

The “Head of Christ,” a popular depiction of Jesus, had been in an entranceway’s “Hall of Honor” in a middle school building that was formerly the high school. It was near portraits of dozens of prominent alumni and people with local roots such as the late four-term Ohio Gov. James Rhodes. The portrait was moved recently by the club to the current high school building.

A complaint that triggered the February lawsuit put the 2,500-student district in the midst of the ongoing national debate over what religious-themed displays are permissible. Jackson is a city of some 7,000 in mostly rural Appalachia.

The ACLU had an earlier lawsuit against schools in nearby Adams County over a Ten Commandments display that federal courts ruled was primarily religious in nature; however, courts including the U.S. Supreme Court have allowed some displays if deciding their primary purpose is non-religious and they don’t promote one religion over another.

With vocal backing from many community members, Jackson’s board initially voted to keep the portrait up, saying it belonged to the Hi-Y Club that donated it and that removing it would infringe upon students’ private rights to freedom of speech. The board said it was part of a “limited public forum,” and that other student clubs could put up appropriate portraits reflecting their mission. Howard said Wednesday no others had been put up.

The groups that sued said in court documents that the move was “nothing more than a contrived pretext to conceal” what they said was the school officials’ continued involvement with the maintenance and display of the portrait.

With the portrait gone three days after Easter Sunday, Howard said he expected most residents to be disappointed.

“Obviously, the majority of people in our community wanted it to stay up somewhere in the school district,” he said. “This all happened so fast, I don’t know that anybody has had time to digest it.”

Mexican court bans use of anti-gay slurs

Mexico’s Supreme Court has ruled that two anti-gay words commonly used in Mexico are hate speech and not protected as freedom of expression under the country’s constitution, allowing those offended by them to sue for moral damages.

The Associated Press reports that the magistrates voted 3-2 in favor of a journalist from the central city of Puebla who in 2010 sued a reporter at a different newspaper who had written a column referring to him as “punal” and others at the plaintiff’s newspaper as “maricones.” Both words roughly translate into “faggot.”

The majority said the terms are offensive and discriminatory.

“Even though they are deeply rooted expressions in Mexican society, the fact is that the practices of the majority of society can’t validate the violations of basic right,” their opinion said.

The Mexican gay and lesbian community and anti-discrimination activists praised the resolution as a step forward in the fight for equality in this conservative, machismo-obsessed country. But others criticized it as ridiculous, saying many other words would have to be added, including some used to offend poor people in a society excessively concerned with social status.

“The historic resolution … marks the first precedent in the discussion of the limits of freedom of expression versus the right to non-discrimination,” said the country’s National Council to Prevent Discrimination.

Alejandro Brito, director of Letter S, a gay rights group, said that the resolution will lead to a more respectful way of referring to gay people but that it falls short of having an impact on the mentality of anti-gay Mexicans.

“This will inhibit the use of the words in public forums and the media, and that’s very positive,” Brito said. “But this doesn’t mean that the person who stops saying these words will stop being homophobic.”

Gay rights have made some advances in Mexico, with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay couples adopting and requiring that same-sex marriages performed in Mexico City be recognized in the rest of the country.

At the same time, violence against gays has increased over the past few years as more people go public about their sexual orientation, according to a report released by Brito’s group in 2010. Mexico City had the most killings of gay people in Mexico, with 144 between 1995 and 2009, according to the report.

Public nudity ban eyed in fed-up San Francisco

San Francisco may be getting ready to shed its image as a city where anything goes, including clothing.

City lawmakers are scheduled to vote Tuesday on an ordinance that would prohibit nudity in most public places, a blanket ban that represents an escalation of a two-year tiff between a devoted group of men who strut their stuff through the city’s famously gay Castro District and the supervisor who represents the area.

Supervisor Scott Wiener’s proposal would make it illegal for a person over the age of 5 to “expose his or her genitals, perineum or anal region on any public street, sidewalk, street median, parklet or plaza” or while using public transit.

A first offense would carry a maximum penalty of a $100 fine, but prosecutors would have authority to charge a third violation as a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and a year in jail. Exemptions would be made for participants at permitted street fairs and parades, such as the city’s annual gay pride event and the Folsom Street Fair, which celebrates sadomasochism and other sexual subcultures.

Wiener said he resisted introducing the ordinance, but felt compelled to act after constituents complained about the naked men who gather in a small Castro plaza most days and sometimes walk the streets au naturel. He persuaded his colleagues last year to pass a law requiring a cloth to be placed between public seating and bare rears, yet the complaints have continued.

“I don’t think having some guys taking their clothes off and hanging out seven days a week at Castro and Market Street is really what San Francisco is about. I think it’s a caricature of what San Francisco is about,” Wiener said.

The proposed ban predictably has produced outrage, as well as a lawsuit. Last week, about two dozen people disrobed in front of City Hall and marched around the block to the amusement of gawking tourists and high school students on a field trip.

Stripped down to his sunglasses and hiking boots, McCray Winpsett, 37, said he understands the disgust of residents who would prefer not to see the body modifications and sex enhancement devices sported by some of the Castro nudists. But he thinks Wiener’s prohibition goes too far in undermining a tradition “that keeps San Francisco weird.”

“A few lewd exhibitionists are really ruining it for the rest of us,” he said. “It’s my time to come out now to present myself in a light and show what true nudity is all about so people can separate the difference between what a nudist is and an exhibitionist is.”

Because clothes are required to enter City Hall itself, demonstrators who try to disrobe at the Board of Supervisors meeting will be escorted out by sheriff’s deputies. That is what happened last Monday when Gypsy Taub removed her dress at a committee hearing where the ban had its first public hearing. Taub, a mother of two, said she got her start as a nudist while hosting a local cable TV program devoted to the theory that the government was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I thought if I take my clothes off, I bet they are going to listen,” she said.

San Francisco lawyer Christina DiEdoardo filed a federal lawsuit last week on behalf of Taub and three men that seeks to block Weiner’s ordinance, if it passes and is signed by Mayor Edwin Lee. The complaint alleges that the ban infringes on the free speech rights of nudists and discriminates against those who cannot afford to obtain a city permit.

While it may seem strange that going out in the buff is not already illegal in San Francisco, most California cities do not have local nudity laws, Wiener said. Instead, they are adequately covered by state indecent exposure laws and societal mores. But indecent exposure technically only applies to lewd behavior, so city officials have had to craft a local solution, he said, adding that the cities of Berkeley and San Jose already have done so.

“I suspect there are a lot of places that maybe don’t currently have a local law (and) that if people started getting naked every day would quickly see a local law,” Wiener said.

I ‘heart’ boobies bracelets stay banned at Wis. school

A federal district court judge has denied a request by the ACLU of Wisconsin to end a ban on “I  Boobies! (Keep A Breast)” bracelets at the Sauk Prairie Middle School in Wisconsin.

The court characterized the Keep A Breast foundation’s slogan as a “vulgar and sexually provocative statement.”

The ACLU responded. Attorney Tamara Packard said, “Our middle school client is dedicated to effectively and constructively educating her peers about breast cancer. It is disappointing that this decision will leave in place a ban on student speech that conveys our plaintiff’s belief that breast cancer is a critical women’s health issue of our time. The very purpose of the bracelets is to educate other young people about cancer prevention, testing, research and treatment.”

The suit was filed a year ago on on behalf of a middle school student at Sauk Prairie Middle School who, along with many classmates, wore an “I  Boobies! (Keep A Breast)” bracelet to school for months before the district banned them.

A federal district court in Pennsylvania stopped a ban on the bracelets last year and issued an opinion that the bracelets could not be considered lewd or vulgar. That case is on appeal.

The ACLU of Wisconsin and the Sauk Prairie student are evaluating their appeal options in the Wisconsin case.