RALEIGH - I once heard a priest remind parishioners that being faithful to religious teaching is tough. There are truths we’d rather avoid, and sometimes we have to swallow some horse pills along the way, he said. He pointed to the pesky requirement to forgive others when we’d rather indulge our emotion and hold a grudge.
I use those words of wisdom as a guidepost to my beliefs, whether religious, political, or constitutional. They were just what I needed last month when I learned the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a crime to lie about having earned a high military service medal or badge.
My heart is with the 2006 Act. I take offense at that kind of self-aggrandizing claim. My husband is a Navy veteran, and I once worked for a company whose top executive was exposed as a liar for claiming to have been a decorated fighter pilot in Korea. My gut says throw the book at people who cavalierly attach themselves to men and women of honor.
My head, however, is with the ruling written by Judge Alex Kozinski. It stands on the principle of free speech as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a fundamental tenet of who we are as Americans. The judge wrote that even lies are protected speech, and for good reason. "Without the robust protections of the 1st Amendment, the white lies, exaggerations and deceptions that are an integral part of human intercourse would become targets of censorship," Judge Kozinski wrote.
In other words, rulings like this one are the horse pill we must swallow to prevent censorship, even when the speech in question is deplorable or emanates from unsavory characters.
I played the same tug-of-war between principle and emotion when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the peaceful but hate-filled protests of the funerals of U.S. soldiers by members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church are constitutionally protected speech. I’ve talked to a Westboro member, and the hair stood up on my arms at the bigotry and vulgarity she spewed. That’s why I cringed at the Supreme Court ruling, and my heart ached for the targeted families.
In my head, however, I knew the decision was correct and grounded in the freedom of speech guaranteed every American, with few exceptions. Wrote Chief Justice John Roberts: "Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain."
Officials at UCLA joined me in swallowing a horse pill last month for a case on their own campus. UCLA student Alexandra Wallace’s YouTube video "Asians in the Library" made her an online star – and the subject of a disciplinary investigation by the university – for her disparaging remarks about Asians on campus. Thousands viewed the video rant, and UCLA was itching to crack down on Wallace.
That is, until the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and others reminded the university of its obligation as a public institution to uphold student speech rights, even when they’re distasteful and politically incorrect. UCLA rightly dropped its investigation. Wallace apologized and, in a disturbing twist, reportedly left the university after receiving death threats.
FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said of UCLA’s decision: "The cure for ‘bad’ speech is ‘better’ speech, and the outpouring of parody and criticism of Wallace’s video demonstrates once again that our nation’s First Amendment tradition of vigorous discourse is the best way to handle speech controversies."
Sometimes neither "better" speech nor a court fight resolves the speech dispute. Take the protracted fight between the Town of Cary and resident David Bowden, who believes Cary damaged his home during construction work. He showcased his displeasure on a giant sign erected on his house: "Screwed By the Town of Cary." Bowden sued Cary over its threat to impose fines unless he removed the sign. A U.S. District Court judge ruled Cary violated Bowden’s speech rights with that move.
But it’s not over. Cary has asked the judge to reconsider, and Bowden has erected a second sign: "Still screwed by the Town of Cary – Come see some of Cary’s finest engineering and construction work – Guided tours available – Oh, by the way, now I have lung cancer – but remember I put up a good fight."
I confess I wouldn’t relish seeing Bowden’s signs in my neighborhood, but we must reject the urge to censor and vigorously protect his right – and the right of all Americans – to speak.
University of California, Los Angeles