Free speech necessary, if painful

Every so often a reader will tell us how they’d like not to see letters on these pages that rip the community and its residents, and generally radiate negativity.

“Do you really have to print those?” they ask.

Yes, we do. The opinion pages in this local newspaper serve as a community forum, in which people outside of our staff are encouraged to discuss ideas, comment on things that are going on in the community, and generally voice their views. The reason we publish all letters that don’t run afoul of the rules listed in the box below is that in a community forum, the community should have a right to speak.

Sometimes, though, that right can be extremely irritating to some. We understand. But that’s the price of freedom of expression.

That point was driven home by the Oregon State Supreme Court last week when it ruled that yelling homophobic or racial insults is free speech protected by the state constitution as long as the behavior doesn’t lead to violence.

The court struck down a state harassment law that banned “abusive” speech, prohibiting insulting a person publicly in a way likely to merely provoke a violent response.

You don’t have to be homosexual or a person of color to see certain benefits in that. After all, most of us don’t want to see people quarrel nastily. But the reality is that restricting such speech hurts us. You don’t have to be a genius to see that banning hate speech today will likely lead to more restrictions tomorrow.

It’s also illegal. You may recall from school that the U.S. Constitution is the bottom line when it comes to our freedoms. States are free to offer more freedom than the federal law allows, but they can’t impose restrictions on individual rights that go any further than what the Founders drafted into our Constitution and the amendments that have been passed since then.

The First Amendment is pretty clear: “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.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, particularly in the last century, has dealt with many different challenges rising from those words. The questions are not easy: How far can one go in speaking against the government? How objectionable can someone’s speech get before it should be stopped? How much control should authorities, particularly school authorities, have over the press, particularly the student press?

In today’s free-wheeling world of the Internet, free speech offers even more challenges to our sense of decorum and safety.

Several of the key cases in the 1900s that helped establish the rights we’ve become accustomed to in today’s society involved left-wing agitators, very aggressive Jehovah’s Witnesses and racists.

Most were doing things that were politically or socially objectionable, but courts ruled that even obnoxious communication could not be prohibited unless it directly endangers the public as a whole or involves “fighting words,” as one landmark opinion put it, which are likely to result in a violent response.

The case that produced Oregon Supreme Court opinion involved a man in a pickup, William Johnson, who yelled racial and homophobic epithets at two women, one black and the other white, who had, he believed, cut off his pickup with their car on a country road.

However, as the court noted, he did not threaten them with violence and he didn’t attack them physically in the face-off that occurred after the women stopped their car.

One justice called Johnson’s behavior “reprehensible” and observed that “these kinds of verbal assaults cause real pain and they have a cumulative effect.

“But,” he added, “we can deal with racism and homophobia in our society without doing damage to the important protections of free speech.”

We should all appreciate that, particularly with our neighbors in Canada clamping down on speech that isn’t considered politically correct.

We are at this point following some 30 years of societal change that has led to greater acceptance of some lifestyles once considered unacceptable by the general public, and by the collective guilt many feel over the racist inequality that has existed for many years in the United States.

Purveyors of such thinking have pressed their advantage into areas that are unconstitutional. Hateful, invective dialogue is disturbing and even injurious, but think what banning it could lead to: slowly, incrementally, we would lose our freedom of speech. If we allow the elephant into the tent, he’s not leaving.

Getting back to our letters page, yes, some of them can be irritating, particularly if you don’t agree. If our staff recognizes that the contents of a letter are not factually accurate, we will often contact the writer to encourage them to reconsider what they’re saying. But otherwise we generally leave it to readers to respond when they see something in the newspaper that ruffles their feathers.

We encourage you to be civil, but to feel free to express your opinions in this public forum. We want to allow as much freedom as possible, but with freedom comes the need for responsibility and civility – and that’s what we ask of you.