Monday, April 26, 2010

You May Speak -- But Must I Listen?

According to the Los Angeles Times (3/9/10), the Supreme Court will rule next year on a case in which a religious protester who believes the U.S. is too tolerant of gays and lesbians attempted to crash the funeral of a straight soldier while holding protest signs -- and then followed up on his website with derogatory comments about the deceased. The soldier's father sued the Kansas preacher for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The preacher based his defense on the claim of free speech. This defense was rejected by the jury, which awarded the plaintiff $10.9 million. After a judge reduced the award to $5 million, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the verdict altogether, agreeing that the First Amendment carried the day.

The father appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that he was a captive audience at his son's funeral (and the argument proceeds, presumably, that he could not therefore avoid being subjected to the preacher's "speech").

It's an interesting case, which raises a potent issue: does your right to speak imply that I must therefore listen? If I don't listen, does that risk diminishing the power of your right to speak? If I must listen, doesn't that violate my rights?

I have no idea how the Supreme Court will rule. But as an interesting note, not necessarily peripheral to the primary issue, Chief Justice John Roberts has gone on record as believing that a coerced presence (by virtue of tradition) of the Supreme Court justices at the annual State of the Union address by the President of the United States is inappropriate if the President uses the occasion to criticize the Court (see Ruth Marcus' column in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, 3/12/10). "Very troubling," he apparently said.

In other words, the President has the right to criticize, but members of the Court shouldn't have to listen.

If nobody has to listen, then how much is the right to free speech really worth? But if people must listen (in circumstances where they can't escape the environment in which the speech is taking place -- or where the speech is so ubiquitous (blanket TV ads?) that viewing it is practically unavoidable), isn't that a restriction on their liberty and freedom (loosely defined)?

OK, readers, how do you think the Supreme Court will rule...and why?

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