Saturday, November 22, 2008

People Standing Up

From the Associated Press earlier today:

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Authorities in Maine say no charges are planned against the owner of a store where a sign invited customers to bet on a date when President-elect Barack Obama would be assassinated. Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion said Friday that Oak Hill General Store owner Steve Collins denied any knowledge of the "Osama Obama Shotgun Pool" sign.

Today, the Portland Press-Herald ran two articles that fleshed out the story of the sign and highlighted the strong response by residents of Portland members of the University of Southern Maine community to this and other recent displays of bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance within the state. Good for the members of the Portland community and the USM students and faculty.

It's something of a paradox of course -- in an open, enlightened, and educated culture, we must be tolerant of other beliefs and ideas but do we break that covenant when we are not tolerant of intolerance?

(Obviously, the attack upon a Portland man wearing makeup following a theatrical production because he "looked gay" has no bearing on tolerance or the First Amendment -- he was assaulted and all of the people of Portland should feel safer once the Neanderthals who did it stand trial for their crime...more on this in a minute.)

But back to the topic of the sign in the window and the black figures hung in effigy...they highlight again a thorny question -- where does free speech end and the abridgment of others' rights to a safe life begin? The courts have grappled with this for years, attempting to find a balance between the critically important First Amendment and the civil rights granted to all members of the community to keep them safe from defamation, intimidation, discrimination, or victimization. Sadly, no clear bright line yet exists, with lower and higher courts batting limits and reversals back and forth like a grim ping-pong ball. As a result, communities come to rely upon other laws to punish violators and protect the innocent from what might otherwise be considered "hate speech.

Consider the case of Robert A. Vincent vs St. Paul in which a teen was arrested after burning a cross on the front yard of an African-American family. Rather than charge him under more established ordinances that addressed topics such as terrorist threats, arson, or criminal damage to property, he was instead charged with the violation of a statute that criminalized activities such as burning crosses or Nazi swastikas. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually tossed the conviction noting that, while "burning a cross in someone's front yard is reprehensible. St. Paul has sufficient means at its disposal to prevent such behavior without adding the First Amendment to the fire."

In the end, the Court's decision rested on the belief that St. Paul's statute unconstitutionally made speech and forms of expression (a burning cross) aimed at racial or religious minorities illegal but not other types of speech that might have targeted "unprotected" groups. The same standard and question of fairness is often applied to the concept of "hate crimes" -- should the punishment be more severe if someone is convicted of assaulting a black man or a lesbian because he is black or she is gay vs. assaulting a Caucasian man or a straight woman?

I'm not a lawyer and can't speak to the constitutionality of hate crimes legislation either at the state or federal level. I do recognize that hate-filled members of our society clearly target those they believe are different or a threat. I also believe that when these fearful bullies (because that's what drives them -- fear -- and they then seek to prey on the weak either in packs or from the shadows due to their cowardice) perpetrate an assault, whether physical, emotional, or otherwise, they should be prosecuted and made to pay for their crimes. Strapping them to the side of a mountain where eagles can feast on their entrails might be a good've got to love those ancient Greeks. They knew how to punish someone. Honestly though, speaking as heterosexual white male, I do want to know that if I get my ass kicked by some ignorant cave dweller who sought me out because I held a different political belief, said cave dweller would be punished just as severely.

I'm an ardent defender of the right to free speech as well as the right of a minority to be safe from repression by the majority. I also am proud that the right to free speech extends to the freedom for members of a community to tell the scared, ignorant fools perpetrating bigoted, racist, homophobic, xenophoic acts that the community categorically rejects those messages of hate and intolerance. The examples set by the Portland community and by protestors nationwide speaking out against the discrimination now written into law by California Proposition 8 are ones that we should remember and support. While there's no law against people saying things that are stupid and ignorant, the law also allows us to stand up and announce that discrimination and intolerance have no place in our society.


By the way, there is at least one notable exception in the case of spoken, written, or implied threats actually resulting in a violation of law: legitimate threats against the President, Vice President, and the POTUS-elect and VPOTUS-elect...though the sign in the store window certainly doesn't meet that threshold. A slightly drier presentation of this statute may be found here though it seems to be more restrictive that the first explanation. How does it account for spoken threats or e-mail? Is e-mail considered the same as snail mail in this case because it is interstate communications/commerce?

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