Free speech: Westboro church Supreme Court case tests First Amendment
A Supreme Court case challenging the Westboro Baptist Church anti-gay protests will test the limits of free speech, with First Amendment implications for other forms of expression such as Quran burning and racist demonstrations.
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She adds: "When we have these controversies, it is up to us to resolve them. Not the courts, not the police, but us."Skip to next paragraph
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The history of the first amendment is populated by a rogues' gallery of provocateurs, crusaders, racists, and assorted scoundrels. These tend to be the kinds of people who exist at the outer edges of public discourse where the boundaries of constitutional protection of offensive speech may not be entirely clear.
Consider the case of Frank Collin. In 1977, he was the leader of a Nazi group that wanted to conduct a protest march through Skokie, Ill., a Jewish community with a significant population of Holocaust survivors. The group sought a permit to parade through the village in their storm trooper uniforms displaying swastikas.
Village officials objected, and the courts agreed to block it, ruling that such a march would be a blatant provocation, a form of fighting words, unprotected by the First Amendment.
But the US Supreme Court had a different view. It reversed the lower courts and sent the case back. Ultimately, the dispute was decided by a federal appeals court in Chicago that found that free speech rights are broad enough to cover even a group of Nazis wearing swastikas marching through a community of Holocaust survivors.
"If these civil rights are to remain vital for all, they must protect not only those society deems acceptable, but also those whose ideas it quite justifiably rejects and despises," the appeals court said.
The case would not have been easy for any lawyer, but it was particularly tough for a Jewish lawyer defending a Nazi pitted against Holocaust survivors. "Some folks threatened to shoot me," he says.
The ACLU lost members and financial support over the controversial case. But Mr. Goldberger, who has since retired after a career as a law professor at Ohio State's Moritz College of Law, says it was a battle well worth fighting.
"It was important that a group identified as a liberal organization with a Jewish legal director would say the First Amendment doesn't turn on the offensiveness of the speech or the noxiousness of the political philosophy that drives the speech," he says.
In 1984, Gregory Lee Johnson arrived in Dallas to participate in a street protest during the Republican National Convention. The demonstration ended at City Hall, where Mr. Johnson unfurled an American flag, doused it with kerosene, and set it on fire. Protesters simultaneously chanted: "America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you."
No one was injured during the protest, but several onlookers said later they were deeply offended. A witness to the burning gathered up the remains of the flag and buried them, respectfully, in his backyard.