A Day In The Life Of The First Amendment | VALID | #TWIBnation

A Day In The Life Of The First Amendment

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Over the past couple of months, the death porn merchants at Pro-Life Action League, a Chicago-based anti-abortion group, have been picketing in my quiet little suburb just west of the city. As the Chicago Tribune reported in May, the subject of the group’s ire is Dr. Cheryl Chastine, a local obstetrician who “helped open the South Wind Women’s Clinic [in Wichita, Kansas] in the same location where [murdered physician] George Tiller ran a clinic.”

The first time these lovely individuals protested in the vicinity of Dr. Chastine’s office, they did so on a Wednesday afternoon in late May. I mention that because the location of their protest happened to be about three blocks from my daughter’s elementary school, which is kindergarten through fifth grade, and three to four blocks from Ascension Catholic School, which is kindergarten through eighth grade. So, the protesters timed their actions in such a way that they were almost certain to confront young school children on their way home from school. Perhaps unknown to the protest’s organizers, they also picketed right in front of an extremely popular frozen custard shop that had just reopened for the summer season–a shop that’s been around since I was a kid, and that attracts a huge (and, of course, very young) customer base. Oh, and the site of the protest was also a few blocks from a public swimming pool, which is also popular with families and children.

Last Wednesday morning they were at it again, protesting in front of Dr. Chastine’s office, marching up and down the street by the custard shop. And in the midst of their protest, I happened to drive by with my eleven-year-old daughter en route to her summer school program at the middle school about a mile away. Before I could tell her to avert her eyes, my daughter caught sight of their grotesque signs. You probably know what I’m referring to: huge, poster-sized images of bloody, dismembered fetuses.

Charming. And undoubtedly designed to engage reasonable people in an honest debate, right?

Setting aside the question whether the protesters support the acts of the terrorist who killed Dr. Tiller (and, yes, Scott Roeder, who committed a violent felony in order to influence public policy, meets the definition of “terrorist” under federal law), I’m not prepared to let them, or anybody else, tell me when I’m supposed to discuss abortion with my daughter. So, I was, shall we say, more than a little peeved that these folks chose to shove their violent, explicit images in her face that morning.

After thinking about it for a day or so, I decided to contact the local constabulary to ask them, you know, What the actual fuck?! How is it that a group of strangers can march down the streets of our town in broad daylight, exposing innocent children (including one of mine) to disgusting, graphic images of what, to them, is murder, and what, to any decent person regardless of political persuasion, is, at best, grossly inappropriate. Emphasis on gross.

The response I got was predictable: Gee, we’re sorry, but we asked the “Interim Village Attorney” (who, like the Wizard of Oz, is apparently only known by his/her title), and he/she advised us that we can’t regulate the content of their signs.

Truth be told, I’m more or less an absolutist when it comes to the First Amendment. So, I empathize with the nameless, faceless Interim Village Attorney’s position.

In fact, though, it’s an open legal question. Last month the Christian Science Monitor reported:

The US Supreme Court declined on Monday [June 10, 2013] to take up a potentially important First Amendment case that would have examined whether a Colorado appeals court ignored fundamental free-speech protections when it upheld a court order blocking antiabortion protesters from waving poster-sized photos of aborted fetuses at members of a church engaged in an Easter procession.

The case sought to test the scope of a demonstrator’s right to use gruesome images as part of an attempt to deliver an effective message in a protest on a public street.

The targeted church, St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopal Church in Denver, sued the protesters, arguing that the demonstration disrupted the religious procession and subjected young children to graphic and disturbing images during what was meant to be an inspiring display of religious devotion.

The injunction was issued after the church sued the protesters for creating a public nuisance and disrupting its services.

As an aside, the fact that the Colorado protests occurred in the vicinity of a church shouldn’t matter. Churches don’t have any greater right to limit the free speech rights of protesters than you or I.

Regardless, though, the real question is this: How seriously do we take the notion that the content of a protest sign is absolutely beyond government regulation in all circumstances? Are we really prepared to say you can put any image, no matter how vile, on a sheet of poster board, staple it to a piece of wood, and it’s magically insulated from any legal objection whatsoever, wherever you happen to tote it?

Imagine, for instance, that some group wants to protest against the Catholic Church’s position on same sex marriage–or, for that matter, against the expansion of equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians in certain states–and, in connection with that protest, they carry posters with images of gay couples (ahem) in flagrante delicto, so to speak. Either because they think it’s a beautiful expression of love between consenting adults, or because they think it’s an abomination and they want the world to see just how . . . er . . . abominable it is. Do you seriously think that local authorities would say, as they’ve said to the anti-abortion death-porn folks: Sure, go ahead. Put whatever images you want on your signs. There’s nothing we can do about it.

In a word: Bullshit. The cops would arrest the gay-porn-sign-carrying protesters in a heartbeat. I guaran-damn-tee it. Because as much as we like to talk about freedom of speech in this country, there’s no question that explicit, violent imagery is protected to a much greater extent than sexual imagery, especially when that explicit, violent imagery is used in support of a right-wing cause. And for what reason? Because sex is icky, but chopped up fetuses are . . . important political commentary? Give me a break.

But that’s the way the First Amendment works, apparently. Some speakers are more equal than others.

David Von Ebers

An evil trial lawyer from Chicago, which makes me almost as bad as Barack Obama himself. Except, I am a Cubs fan, unlike our President, and so, as the kids say, I AM SHAME. I blog about legal issues, politics, sports, music (that long-haired rock 'n roll music all the kids are into), and, frequently, the interaction between any and all of the above. When I'm not busy undermining the Constitution or circumventing your freedoms, I run, watch too much sports on the teevee, and hang out with my long-suffering wife and three kids.

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5 Comments

  1. Randle Aubrey July 2, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Great piece, Dave. Americans have such a hard-on for violence, but we’re absolutely horrified at open expressions of sexuality. It’s absurd the way we cling to our Puritan values and act as if they will somehow save us, using fear instead of reason to guide our society, so utterly convinced of our rightness. It creates so many double-standards, but we often forget about the ones involving free speech. In the American digital age, it still feels like you can (more or less) pretty much say anything, especially if it has to with God, guns, and Ol’ Glory.
    But put a pinup on a protest sign and see how quickly the pearl clutchers try and shut that whole thing down. I’m just relieved to see that they’re not the only ones at the podium anymore. Protest movements have become the new normal across the globe, and most of them are out of the hands of those who would use humanitarian issues like abortion rights and marriage equality as distractions, stirring up nationalist sentiment and convincing people to work against their own actual interests. More people than ever are sick and tired of partisan intractability, and they’re done asking politely to have their voices be heard. And frankly, it’s about time. We’ve let our government get away with murder practically since day one; it’s time to rein them in.

    • David von Ebers July 2, 2013 at 11:05 pm

      Thanks, Randle!

  2. I tire of double standards July 2, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    What the fuck do you call the pride parade. They show tons of open sexuality at that event. I think the people who carry those signs are idiots, but I will fight for their right to do it.

    Take your daughter to next years parade and see if you can cover her eyes quick enough.

  3. Imani Gandy July 2, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    Great post, Dave.

    • David von Ebers July 2, 2013 at 11:07 pm

      Thanks, Imani!

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