The First Amendment is front and center in this morning’s Boston Globe. Three stories for your consideration:
1. Paranoia and the MBTA. Friend of Media Nation Harvey Silverglate argues that the court-ordered censorship of three MIT students is rooted in post-9/11 paranoia about security. The law is aimed at computer hacking that could put people in danger; now it’s being applied merely to writing about hacking, and not the sort that might endanger lives but, rather, would simply cost the T money. Silverglate concludes that “with the ghosts of 9/11 and ‘national security’ hovering, the students and the First Amendment didn’t stand a chance.” (Silverglate also blogs for the Boston Phoenix.)
2. Criminalizing symbolic speech. An Associated Press news brief reports that a Louisiana teenager has been sentenced to four months in prison for hanging nooses off the back of his truck and displaying them at a civil-rights rally on behalf of the Jena Six. Recently I challenged Peter Porcupine to find an example of a hate-crime law that criminalizes speech. Sadly, I think I’ve just found one. Take a look at this ABC News report on the case against the teenager, Jeremiah Munsen. There are complicating factors, and Munsen does appear to be quite the dirtball. But essentially Munsen is going to prison for his exercise of symbolic speech. “I wish we had a charge in Louisiana for aggravated ignorance,” a police officer is quoted as saying. Apparently that’s unnecessary; the federal hate-crimes statute will do quite nicely.
3. Teaching students they have no rights. In Knoxville, Tenn., a high-school student sued for the right to wear Confederate-flag clothing to school, a violation of the dress code. His case ended in a mistrial, according to the AP. The right of school districts to impose such codes is so well-established that this is scarcely worth a mention, except as a reminder that young people are raised and educated in an environment that’s devoid of constitutional protections. We shouldn’t be surprised that a majority of them grow up to oppose the constitutional rights of others, as you will see in the second entry here.
Yesterday Media Nation commenter Leslie wrote, “For us liberals to reflexively hide behind the free speech banner is too easy.” I hope these three examples show that it’s actually hard. Speech that we like needs no defense.
If you’re going to stand up for the First Amendment, you are invariably going to find yourself standing up for kids whose actions might make it easier for people to rip off the T, or for racist teenagers from Louisiana or Tennessee. So be it.