Free, but responsible

Free, but responsible

As we approach the Fourth of July, our thoughts turn to the many freedoms we enjoy as citizens of a free and democratic nation. One of our most precious rights is that of free speech. Yet, as we all know, speech can, and should, be used with some care. (None of us, for example, has the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater – unless, of course, there is a fire.)

This week’s arrest of the controversial Hal Turner, a blogger and Internet radio host based in North Bergen, raises some interesting free speech questions.

The issue here is not whether Turner’s speech is pleasant or even palatable. Indeed, it is generally accepted that he is a white supremacist, both anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic. The question is, are his words “protected speech”? That is for the courts to decide.

Were the case to be decided in the court of public opinion, it’s likely he would be convicted. Certainly, the fact that his home contained both weapons and ammunition gives credence to the argument of the federal authorities that he did, in fact, mean to harm three appeals court judges who had upheld handgun bans. (He certainly did, after all, write on his Website, “Let me be the first to say this plainly: These judges deserve to be killed.”)

Still, the courts have ruled broadly on the issue of free speech, and some experts have contended that racist and hateful as Turner undoubtedly is, his words cannot be considered either threats – since he didn’t say he was going to harm the judges himself – or incitement, with its connotation of “imminent lawless action.” (The Supreme Court held in Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969, that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless it is likely to incite “imminent lawless action.”)

Judaism has a lot to say about free speech as well. And here, too, we encounter some limitations. So harmful did the rabbis consider the sin of lashon hara, “evil speech,” that they linked it with terrible diseases requiring purification. And, teach our sages, evil speech is not a victimless crime. In fact, they say, there are three victims: the speaker, the listener, and the subject of the conversation.

This Independence Day, as we count the blessings of living in this wonderful country, let us remember that a society is only as civil as its members. We don’t have to like Hal Turner, or his ilk, but we do have to grant them their day in court.