Freedom of Speech

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. First Amendment~

Freedom of Speech came into the spotlight once again last week as the Supreme Court handed down a verdict in the case of Snyder v. Phelps.  The Westboro Baptist Church, led by Mr. Phelps, is known for protesting anything that stands for LGBT-equality but also for protesting the military funerals of our fallen soldiers.  Communities and states have rallied over the years to enact laws that give those from the WBC a time and place where they can protest without interrupting the services of our fallen soldiers.  But that still hasn’t stopped various lawsuits from going forth against the WBC to try to get them to stop altogether.  But the Supreme Court has ruled (8-1) that the protests are protected by the First Amendment… the Freedom of Speech.

I would tend to think that there are not too many people that like what the people of the Westboro Baptist Church do.  In fact, the congregation is mostly made up of the Phelps family… and probably some confused, narrow-minded people.  At least locally, media coverage of them protesting a military funeral is close to nothing at all… which is probably as it should be since they probably want all the media attention.  And the local LGBT-community is not afraid to stand up to their protests and counter-protest their hate speech with that of love.

When the verdict was announced, most people I know where outraged.  But where others were giving in to their hatred for the WBC, my mind started to think.  Sure, my opinion of the WBC and those that believe in what it preaches is the lowest of all lows, but do they have the right to freedom of speech with the message they are sending out to people?  I surely thought so.  Freedom of Speech is Freedom of Speech, whether we agree with it or not.  Right?  Not so fast.  Upon having a conversation with my friend Deborah that evening, who has studied constitutional law, there is more to this.  And this entire issue is not as cut and dry as one might think.

In the case of Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect against what it called “insulting or ‘fighting words’ — those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” (315 US 568, 572 [1942]) Chaplinsky was a Jehovah’s Witness who had been arrested by a New Hampshire town marshall after he tried to prevent Chaplinksy from preaching… after which Chaplinsky spouted off by saying “You are a God-damned racketeer” and “a damned fascist.”

If you had noticed earlier, I said that the verdict was 8-1 in favor of the WBC.  It was Justice Samuel Alito who dissented… and it was on this very clause that he did so.  Justice Alito said that the WBC was not protected under freedom of speech because he likened the protests to fighting words and of a personal character.  The other 8-justices disagreed ruling that the attacks were protected because the attacks were public and not personal and that there are local laws that can shield those attending the funerals from the protesters.

A point I want to make with this last piece of the majority’s reasoning.   Just because local laws are in place that can tell the protesters where and when they are allowed to protest, that shouldn’t be used as part of the ruling.  This wasn’t so much a case that was challenging the local laws, this was a case that challenged whether the WBC had the right to protest and say the things it was saying.

Other than the “fighting words” judgment from the Court in 1942, I also can’t help but think now of defamation.  This was something that was taught to me in my Media Law class back in college, and to which my college professor would probably be proud that I remember this.  Defamation requires an allegation of a fact that is actually false and harms the reputation of an individual.  This can come in two forms… spoken slander or written libel.  Could it be considered defamation when the protesters of the WBC hold up signs with the deceased’s name on it and saying that that particular person in in Hell.  Technically, they don’t really know where we go when we die and where this particular soldier’s soul is, and they are harming the reputation of this fallen soldier.  Defamation is also why you can’t claim freedom of speech when you put up a huge billboard along the interstate claiming your ex-boyfriend/girlfriend is a child molester or a rapist when they are not.  So there are limitations as to what you can say or write about people.

So, did the Supreme Court get this decision right?  My initial reaction was yes, but after further reviewing case jurisprudence, I think my answer does switch to the negative.  It would appear that I agree with Justice Alito that the attacks are very personal in nature.  And I might also add that some of what is being said and written borderline on defamation of character.  But what do you think?  Are the protests of the WBC during military funerals protected under the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech or do you think later Supreme Court decisions restrict them?

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The Sounds of Bluegrass

This past Monday a survey was released to the citizens of the state of Kentucky.  The Schapiro Group of Atlanta had interviewed 600 registered voters from across the state between November and December of 2010 on the subject of tolerance toward the LGBT community and discrimination.  It would appear that 83% of Kentucky residents say that LGBT people should be protected from discrimination in the workplace, in housing, and in public places.  You might need to read that sentence over again to make sure you read that number correctly… 83%.  If you’re like me, you probably wouldn’t think of a number that high for a state that has a “southern state” image to it.  But images can always be deceiving from both sides.  We must remember that Kentucky was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln (and Jefferson Davis), and where Congressman Henry Clay was from… someone that my ancestry has a connection to.

But when it comes to gay rights, Kentucky usually isn’t at the forefront of the fight.  But then again… times are changing and so is the mindset of the nation… even if does seem a bit slow to us living in the moment.  The numbers were up 18-percentage points from a similar survey taken in 2004.  So technically by historical terms, the mindset of people are changing much quicker than they have over other things such as civil rights or women’s rights.  Could access to various media outlets and the internet be fueling this “rapid” change?  More than likely.  The more open and honest about who we are, the more people see that we are no different than they are.

So with these new survey results, does this mean that Kentucky will be a state that will be gay-friendly in the near future?  One can certainly hope so… and I know I’m not alone with that sentiment, but there is still a lot of work to be done in order to make such progress possible.  Despite the overall number showing improvement, it would seem (according to the survey) that only 70% would support equal legal protections for the LGBT-community… which is only up just 7%.  But the survey showed that these types of numbers weren’t just isolated to the major urban areas of Louisville and Lexington.  It was spread out across the state.  Now that is impressive within itself.  I know that Missouri wouldn’t have those kinds of numbers throughout the state… probably just in St. Louis, Kansas City, and possibly Columbia.

So Kentucky could be setting itself up ahead of the overall national curve.  The typical southern state is seen as something that is very anti-gay… with the exception of a few scattered urban areas.  The mere fact that the citizens of Kentucky are starting to realize that the LGBT-community shouldn’t be discriminated against is a big first step… even if it is only in the workplace, housing, and public places.  It’s a place to start and build upon.  And I, for one, applaud the people and the state of Kentucky for opening their minds and progressing forward, and I hope that they continue to do so.

It would be interesting if there were numbers from other southern states (Missouri included) that had been taken at the same time on the same issues so that we could see where Kentucky stood overall.  My guess, though, is that it would stand a few steps higher than most of them.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in A Psalm of Life, “Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labour and to wait.”  Though at times, progress might seem slow, we must continue to push forward and lead by example.  Patience is a virtue that we must hold to, as well.  The numbers out of Kentucky should give us all hope, not just those within the state, but we must also be mindful and not allow us to get ahead of ourselves.  We are only in the middle of this vast journey, and there is still plenty of work that needs to be done.  As time continues to move forward, the mindset of the people changes ever so slowly.  But with each step, we should celebrate the accomplishment and allow it to renew our energy and our drive for a better tomorrow.  So for the people of Kentucky, there is renewed hope and the start of a new tomorrow… and they continue to press on.

SIDENOTE: For those of you living in Kentucky, or even those of you who don’t, that are wishing to get involved or contribute in some way, look no farther than the Fairness Campaign.  I’m sure they’d be glad to hear from you.

Bully Pulpit

The school year is now in full swing and kids are back in the daily grinds of school, and homework, and extra curricular activities.  But there is also a darker side to this.  While most kids just go about their days as normal, there are hundreds of kids out there that face a living hell each time they walk through the school doors as they are bullied and taunted endlessly by their peers.  In the month of September, at least 4-such incidences have been reported by the media  (there were probably even more than that) in which a kid (or a student) has committed suicide over the endless taunting and teasing over their sexual orientation… or perceived sexual orientation.

This is an ongoing problem that has no end.  Parents report problems to the schools and the schools don’t have a lot of options when it comes to it.  And other classmates usually don’t step in to help on the fear that they will be bullied next.  And the kids that are being bullied just haven’t developed a way to counter it.  They feel alone and isolated and in a hell they cannot escape from.

Even when I was in school, I, too, was bullied and teased.  The effects of such things still linger within me today.  But I learned how to cope with such things.  I kept to myself and quiet… and tried to always stay in the back.  The less I was noticed, the better it would be… though I couldn’t escape everything.  But I did survive such things, and I do know now that there would be better days ahead.  Elementary school, middle school, and high school can be some of the most turbulent times for today’s youth and it takes some tough skin to get through it.

Acceptance and tolerance are key things in this battle.  Though parts of these lessons can be learned at school, the main driving force behind these messages must come from the home.  It is up to the parents to instill these values within their children from a very early age.  Not everyone is going to be like you (act like you, look like you, etc), but that doesn’t give someone the right to pass judgment on that other person.  Think about it for a moment… the way you are judging someone else might be the way someone else is judging you.  You know that you wouldn’t like it, so then why do it?

Bullying is not a new problem and even with anti-bullying legislation making its way through various state legislatures, it’s probably not going to go away anytime soon.  But we can give the school the resources to help out… to make sure that the kids have a safe place to go and someone to talk to… and maybe get action to be taken.  The tough skin that these kids need will develop once they start realizing that they are not alone in the world and that someone out there does care.  And if someone out there is reading this… “I CARE!  And you are not alone.”

There is a vast community out here that can and will assist anyone.  And if you, or someone you know needs help, there is a really good place to turn… The Trevor Project.  They have people standing by 24-hours a day to take your calls and help these kids get through these dark times.  Suicide is not the answer for any child… and it’s time we start making sure these kids realize that they are not alone.  After all, I care.  Do you?

The Trevor Project

http://www.thetrevorproject.org/

866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386)  24-hours a day

Islamophobia in America

It happened in New York City.  A man got into a cab and after going a few blocks asked the driver if he was a Muslim.  When the driver confirmed that he was, the passenger began to repeatedly stab him.  The driver did have several cuts, but was able to get the cab pulled over and lock the assailant inside.  Luckily, the driver, who has been in the country for more than 25-years and has raised his family here in that time, was not killed.  And this all ties into a recent Time magazine headline that asks, “Does America Have a Problem with Islam?”

This entire situation has been thrust into the news lately because of a plan to build a mosque/Islamic cultural center 2 blocks from Ground Zero.    The two sides in that debate are religious freedom vs. Ground Zero being sacred and building a mosque within sight of it is an insult to those who died.  Now I do agree that Ground Zero is sacred and hollowed ground.  But once you get off the site, how far must a Muslim go before they are free to worship?  If two blocks isn’t enough, then is three or four?  How about the other side of Manhattan or maybe in a different county or a different state?  Where is this magical line that is drawn?  And why is it that one important piece of information has been lost within the debate of this…. that Muslims have been worshiping in the current building on the site for almost a year now without so much as a peep from the general public.  It’s only been since the announcement of tearing down the current building and replacing it with one that looks much nicer and is better suited to fit the needs of that niche of the community.  Now I add that it would be nice, and a great show of respect to the overall community, if the Imam would reveal where the funding came for this new building… so we could be assured that it does not have ties to Islamic extremists.

The attacks on September 11, 2001, have greatly changed how we Americans view those of the Islamic faith.  In a recent Time-abt SRBI poll, 46% of Americans believe Islam, more than any other faith, encourages violence against nonbelievers… and only 37% actually know a Muslim-American.  So does the second number in the poll relate to the first one?  Of course it does.  The more we tend to know about people, the more we tend to understand them.  As a young man, fresh out of college, I was fortunate enough to work with a couple of Muslim-Americans.  This was after the 9/11 attacks, as well.  But it gave me a chance to get to know these individuals and the knowledge I gained is insurmountable.  And these individuals/former colleagues have no idea how much their actions shaped how I view the overall big picture.

We tend to forget that it was not Muslims… or people of the Islamic faith… that attacked the United States on 9/11.  It was Muslim extremists that attacked us.  And there is a huge difference between the two things.  One could say that Muslims celebrated the terrorist attacks… and that is probably true in Muslim nations where we have interfered in their internal matters for our own personal gains.  But in this nation, most Muslim-Americans were horrified by the attacks that day and were right there with the rest of us arm-in-arm (shoulder-to-shoulder) ready to hunt down those that would dare attack us.  They cried along with us over the loss of their family members, friends, and colleagues… and I’m not referring to the hijackers either.

When does it become acceptable to blame and punish everyone of a particular community or faith for the actions of a limited number of extremists?  My answer to this…never.  Some might say that we can’t tell the difference between those that worship Islam peacefully and the extremists who want to kill all who don’t agree with them.  And that would be correct.  However, if I suddenly walked up to you during World War II and started speaking German, one would not know that I’m an American simply because there is no visual difference between us.

And something else that I’ve noticed that I want to raise a question on.  Is there really a difference between Christian extremists and Islamic extremists?  Having heard propaganda from both sides, my answer is ‘not at all’.  In fact, I wouldn’t put it past an extremist Christian to launch a major attack against a Muslim nation or the people of the Islamic faith.  And one can’t look at history and say that a Christian would never do such a thing.  Where was such an outcry when Timothy McVeigh, who wasn’t a Muslim or an Islamic extremist, blew up the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City?  Back when the Catholic Church pretty much controlled Christianity, one must only think of the Crusades and even the Inquisition.  Even when the Pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution in Great Britain, they still managed to persecute anyone that didn’t share their beliefs and kick them out of the Plymouth colony… which is oddly enough how the settlement in what is now Providence, Rhode Island got started.

We must remember that there are extremists in all the religions… those that would take things to the far extreme because someone else doesn’t agree with them.  We are supposed to be a nation founded on religious tolerance… so where has that gone?  Why is the general American populace unwilling to allow peaceful, law-abiding Muslim-Americans to worship freely as those same people allow us to do?  The attacks on 9/11 did show us a couple of things.  First, they showed us the lengths religious extremists will go to.  They have opened our eyes to the broader picture.  Unfortunately, most people are only tending to look at that half of the larger picture rather than the entire thing.  And second, it has brought out the signs of religious divide and that something is wrong if it is different than the social, or religious norm.  Former Speak of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich recently compared Islam with Nazism.  I would have to disagree with the former Speaker.  It is the American masses that are starting to act more Nazi… whereas it must be Christian and Aryan or it’s wrong and must be eliminated or at least segregated from normal life.  Most Americans would want everyone to think that it’s an “us vs. them” mentality, but it’s more along the lines of “us vs. ourselves.”  We must learn that there is a difference out there in the real world amongst things and that not all people get drafted into one complete category or another.  Stereotypes are the root of all hatred and evil and somewhere along the lines, a civilized person must be willing to say enough is enough.

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