MCCULLOUGH: Right to free speech sometimes presents quandaries

Nate McCullough

Nate McCullough

Being a journalist, I'm a staunch defender of the First Amendment.

In fact, I believe the framers got the order right in terms of importance when it comes to the Bill of Rights: Freedom of speech at No. 1, right to bear arms at No. 2, no quartering of soldiers at No. 3 and so on. The right to speak your mind is our most precious freedom, and protecting it is serious business.

But it is not limitless. You can't defame people or shout fire in a crowded theater. This week saw three more instances in which the right to free speech was thrown starkly against modern values and decency.

First, the Ku Klux Klan wanted to adopt a highway in the north Georgia mountains. I didn't even know organized groups of Klansmen still existed, much less that they were so interested in picking up trash on the side of the road. And if that was all they were going to do, I'd say let them have their highway.

But they'd want the same signs the Kiwanis or the Boy Scout troops get. And they'd probably do their highway cleaning in their robes and pointy hats. And as much as they have the right to say what they want -- no matter how much the mainstream disagrees -- the state also has the authority to determine what sort of message it delivers on the side of its highways. So score one for Georgia for rejecting the Klan's application.

In the second example, I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with the intent of a law even though I can't agree with its application.

Middleborough, Mass., residents voted this week to fine people $20 for swearing in public. The intent of the ordinance is to put a stop to teens and hooligans standing on the sidewalk throwing F-bombs at each other.

This one I can almost get behind. I can have a foul mouth. I'm not proud of it, but it's the truth.

But I try not to do it in restaurants or grocery stores. The kind of swearing I hear from people (it's not just kids) in public these days just makes me sad. So many seem to care so little about what kind of language other people might find offensive. And it didn't used to be that way. When I was 12, if my mama had heard me say some of the words I hear 12-year-olds using today, not only would I still be grounded, but my backside would still be stinging, stopping me from doing it again, so I understand what Middleborough is trying to do. But in this case, I have to disagree with their actions. Fine me for a four-letter word and pretty soon you're fining me for other things I say. The ordinance is a bad idea, and if I'm not mistaken, this sort of thing has already been ruled unconstitutional.

Finally, we come to the most serious of the week's First Amendment questions: The hanging of the president in effigy.

Dove World Outreach Center, the church in Florida overseen by Pastor Terry Jones of Quran-burning fame, has hanged an effigy of Barack Obama with the words "Obama killed America" displayed with it. As you can imagine, his neighbors are disgusted and outraged.

Political speech is our most sacred form of speech. To be able to protest and speak out against a government you perceive to be wrong is the concept our country was founded upon. Political dissent is the very heart of American liberty.

But veiled threats against the president -- if that is what this is -- cross a line from dissent into radicalism. Not that the First Amendment doesn't protect radicals, too -- it was written by revolutionaries. But it's very important the Secret Service investigate Jones to determine his intent, the same way it questioned Ted Nugent. (This instance, though, seems more serious. Nugent talked about himself being dead. Jones seems to be suggesting we kill the president.) If Jones is threatening the president's life, then he should be dealt with accordingly.

On the other hand, if he is simply making a political statement, then like it or not, he has the right, no matter how disgusted we might be.

But we also have the right to ignore it. Or maybe Florida could begin a new road beautification project. I'd start with planting about 50 Leyland Cypresses between the road and the Dove Center.

Wouldn't that make a statement?

Email Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.


richtfan 3 years, 3 months ago

although I disagree with the Klan, the state of GA was wrong to deny their application. Equal protection means equal protection anyway you slice it. I don't like what they stand for, but I defend their right to be what they want to be. The law cannot, on a whim, decide that their message is bad because it might be unpopular. That's just wrong.


FordGalaxy 3 years, 3 months ago

Richtfan- Also, with the state denying their application based solely on their beliefs, you can bet any amount of money you want that there will be a long, drawn-out lawsuit. Most likely, the state will end up dropping the entire Adopt-A-Highway program, which means we'll go back to the state paying for clean-up, which means higher government costs. In order to pay for it, I'm sure they'll pitch another SPLOST, or tolls, or something.

I'm with you. I don't agree with the Klan. But it was not the smartest move on the state's part to summarily deny them the chance. As i wrote elsewhere, it was actually a good chance for the state to promote tourism. Who wouldn't want to watch trash picking up trash. Or, better than that, maybe it would've spurred some of these other groups with higher moral standards than the Klan to get off their butts and do something, rather than have the Klan represent the state.

Or, the state could've granted the application, then changed the name of the road. My favorites include: 1. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Scenic Highway 2. Fredrick Douglass Freedom Road 3. Integration Boulevard


charlesg 3 years, 3 months ago

I agree, particularly with the trash-picking-up-trash quip. For any legal authority to ban an American from saying : "I wish to pick up trash under this banner" seems short-sighted.


FactChecker 3 years, 3 months ago

The KKK has adopted a highway in the past. Initial application denied but courts did rule to their right to participate. However, the organization did not take the job seriously and their sign of participation was removed and their right to clean the stretch revoked. Because of the history of neglecting to live up to the agreement, it is uncertain how the courts might rule.


kmsimpson 3 years, 3 months ago

As much as I may think Pastor Terry Jones is a fruitcake, I have one question about that. Mr. McCoullough, did you say anything like this when it was the DNC posting "Wanted: Dead or Alive" posters of President Bush? If not, why is it suddenly important now when it wasn't previously?

Pastor Terry Jones has a right to free speech just as does any other American, but lately it seems more and more that we have people thinking the right to free speech only applies to one party.


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