Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday First Amendment Roundup

A new feature collecting first-amendment related news from around the country. I'm not promising this will happen every Friday, but I'll do my best. And now I'm thinking I should have called it "First Amendment Rodeo!" Oh well. Here we go!!

We start in Philadelphia, where the Third Circuit dismissed a civil suit against the city by Repent America, stemming from the arrest of eleven Repent America members at the 2004 "OutFest" LGBT block party in Center City.

As the Delaware County Times reports, the court ruled that while Repent America had the right to be present at the event (overruling a lower court ruling that the permit issued to event organizers PhillyPride effectively shut Repent America out) but that they crossed a line by intentionally disrupting the permitted event.

World Net Daily, always a fascinating read, offers their own (somewhat slanted) take on the ruling.


Frank D. LoMonte has a guest column at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about attempts to limit the speech rights of public high school students across the country, including some here in Pennsylvania. Not satisfied with being little dictators inside their own walls, some school administrators now want the power to discipline students for their speech outside of school. These are the first few aftershocks of Morse v. Frederick (AKA "Bong Hits 4 Jesus"); where once schools taught their students civics, the lesson now is "sit down, shut up, and do as you're told."


On the international stage, the Beijing Olympics are casting a spotlight on many Chinese human rights offenses (including an alleged instruction from Chinese authorities that bars near the Olympic Village are not to admit anyone black or Mongolian) but also on the speech-limiting practices of American corporations (like Google and Microsoft) doing business in China.

The United Nations, meanwhile, is considering a resolution that would criminalize any criticism, parody, or defamation of any religion. Similar laws already stand in many nations - including Canada, where people are sued with some regularity for critical comments or jokes directed at religions. Julia Duin at the Washington Post fears the UN restrictions would be so strict that "anybody anywhere could sue for merely having hurt feelings."

Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman agree, and took time out to write a piece for the Wall Street Journal saying so. Congress is currently considering three separate bills that would protect Americans from being sued in foreign courts over Constitutionally-protected comments.


On the topic of religion and offense, how about that New Yorker cover, huh??

Jayne Lyn Stahl at the Huffington Post casts the rollicking fracas over the cover in the light of history, presenting reflections on free expression and offensiveness from some folks you may have heard of - including Richard Nixon ("the rights of free not carry with them the right to advocate the destruction of the very government which protects the freedom" - good old Dick!), FDR, and Salmon Rushdie ("What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.")

I especially love that Rushdie quote. After all, speech that offends no one requires no law to protect it. Right?


Speaking of offensive speech... The US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled that a white-supremacist soldier's racist AOL profile was protected by the First Amendment because he did not direct the statements at anyone in particular (a majority of the world's population, sure, but no one in his unit) and "they did not interfere with his job performance or with any military mission," and that he could therefore not be disciplined or discharged because of the profile.

One wonders how an Army paratrooper's job performance is not impaired when he identifies his race as "Aryan," quotes "the imprisoned matyr" [sic] David Lane, and recommends a book in which white Christians kill a mixed-race couple, and when said Army paratrooper's job partly entails making informed decisions about what people he should and should not shoot. One of the five justices did file a dissent.

Still, I guess it's good to see that even if you're enlisted, the Constitution still protects your right to express yourself as a racist jerk.


Finally, on the Establishment Front (all quiet since Christmas - right, Bill?) the Texas State Board of Education has approved an elective Bible course to be taught in public high schools. Now, before you go and assume the Board went off half-cocked (a little Texas humor for you, there), read what the Dallas Morning News has to say:
"Among those who urged the board to issue specific guidelines for the class was Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who helped write the 2007 law. Mr. Hochberg warned that without specific guidance from the state, some schools would run afoul of the First Amendment requirement of religious neutrality for such classes."
Of course, in the end the majority of the Board voted just to approve "a Bible course" and not to issue any guidelines to tell schools how they should go about teaching it.

"Attorney General Gregg Abbott has told the baord that while the state standards for the Bible class appear to be in compliance with the First Amendment, his office can't guarantee that the courses taught in high schools will be constitutional because they haven't been reviewed.

Critics contend that the board standards for the course are so vague and general that many schools might unknowingly create unconstitutional Bible classes that either promote the religious views of teachers or disparage the religious beliefs of some students."
A Bible class that promotes the religious views of the teachers? In Texas? I don't see what everyone is so worried about. I mean, how often do you hear about teachers pushing their religious views on students?

Sarcasm aside, Texas Board of Education, let me be the first to say: "Thank you for your contribution to the ACLU."

So in conclusion: Texans have never been big on the separation of Church and State. (Sorry, I couldn't resist!)


Two small notes:

If you missed the New York Times FISA ad that ACLU ran this week, you can see it here.

And lastly, most of you will (hopefuly) be as happy as me to read that Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage in California, is currently trailing in polls 51 to 42 percent, with less than four months remaining until the vote.

Chris in Philly

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