Freedom of speech gets undying support from the wide majority, which, as an aside, is more than we can say about freedom of the press.
Just do a poll — scientific or otherwise — and the results will be nearly unanimous. Every American professes a belief in freedom of speech and the drive to defend it.
However, that belief is often compromised after the speaking begins.
That’s where my head will be April 28 when I participate in a public forum entitled: “Hate speech and other favorite American pastimes.”
I’ll be part of a panel discussion that will welcome audience participation. The forum, which begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Norris Center across from Naples City Hall, is being sponsored by the Collier County Chapter of the ACLU.
A story that generated lots of discussion in our newspaper and on our Web site is mentioned in fliers announcing the forum and inviting the public’s participation.
“The recent occurrence of ‘Kick a Jew Day’ at a Collier County public school yet again reminds us that hate speech persists, that like it or not it’s as much a part of the human psyche as churches, synagogues and country clubs and, just like the face of the Gorgon, if you don’t pay attention when it appears you could face dire consequences. Yet the First Amendment affords protection to such speech,” the flier states.
The “Kick a Jew Day” reference was an incident we reported on back in the fall that garnered national headlines. A number of students were suspended from a local middle school after declaring through notes and word of mouth that on a certain day of the school week it would be OK to kick students who were Jewish. Some surmised it was spawned by a “South Park” TV show that was meant, ironically, to be a parody on prejudice and hate.
“When the KKK wants to march, when the Nazi party wants to goose step, when the Rev. (Fred) Phelps wants to vilify the gay community by picketing the funerals of our war dead, they do so with the same protection afforded any other speech,” the flier adds.
David Millstein, a Collier County ACLU board member and practicing civil rights attorney, will be the moderator. He will guide the panel discussion on the roots of hatred and hate speech, how and why it persists and why it is protected.
I plan to do lots of listening when my fellow panel members speak. They include professor John Cox, director of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Holocaust studies center; the Rev. Ron Patterson, who is chairman of the Coalition of Progressive Religious Voices; and Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU in Florida.
The newspaper business has taught me that words are powerful.
The courts have told us that freedom of speech involves more than the spoken word. It’s the carrying of a sign, the burning of a flag, the wearing of a swastika and the flying of the Stars and Bars of the long-dead Confederacy.
Should be a good forum.
Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org