Reflection: The Value of Offensive Speech


Readers most responded to the case of the KKK’s fight to participate in Georgia’s Adopt-a-Highway program. Another reader suggested I write about a free speech controversy at my own university. My thoughts on both issues overlap.


I’ve written previously, but briefly, about this still-pending case. The most recent activity seems to be that the Georgia Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether it will hear the case at all.
This case fascinates me. First, there’s the ACLU advocating for the KKK, the dissonance perhaps best illustrated in my favorite article about the case.
Moreover, the case is like a mirror to the part of my soul that thinks about free speech. I initially thought, “The KKK will lose. It’s government speech!” I wasn’t sorry that a recent Supreme Court decision could so simply dismiss the case of viewpoint discrimination, so that I wouldn’t have to reconcile my love of free speech with my hatred of the KKK.

Wynn and Walker

When I first wrote about government speech, I was undecided. By the time I finished researching the follow-up, I agreed with the Walker dissent. Judge Wynn won me over. I was ready to submit my own Georgia license plate design! But how to fit onto a license plate, “Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. was wrongly decided and should be overruled or at least significantly narrowed!”?

More Than License Plates and Roadsigns

Further developments in government speech, which I’ve begun to research and will write about after the final exams hiatus, intersect with another topic that’s been in the news quite a bit lately: campus free speech. I’m particularly interested in this case, Gerlich v. Leath. (Look! video of the oral arguments!)

I was asked to write about my own school’s campus speech controversy. I have an unclear idea of what the facts really are, from word-of-mouth, news stories, and Snopes. News stories, from what I can tell, have been selectively covering facts, noting that the University President promised to review security video to unmask the free speakers, without noting that this was probably a response to the fact that some of the chalking occurred outside of permitted areas. Enforcing that rule, such as by making them clean up those particular chalkings, is punishing their conduct, not their speech.

False First Amendment Frenzy

The First Amendment has been invoked quote a bit in this discussion. However, the First Amendment only restricts government actors. A private University cannot violate the First Amendment. Nor can a private individual who asks another party to stop speaking.

The First Amendment protects not only political speech, but also the speech of the private parties asking them to stop or expressing their feelings. They are not violating someone else’s First Amendment rights; they are expressing their own, no matter how “whiny.”

Still, private entities can adopt pro-free speech policies.


What Value to Offensive Speech?

Even though the First Amendment protects everything from uninspired rambling in a text message to the highest forms of art and literature, sometimes in considering free speech law, the value of speech is discussed. Realizing that my opinions on government speech and dislike of viewpoint discrimination were making me sympathetic to the KKK (in the Adopt-a-Highway controversy, that is), I asked myself what, if anything, was the value of their speech? If the sign doesn’t voice any kind of message or ideology, but serves rather as an identifier, does it have value?

At the very least, a sign that merely lists the name of the organization, indicating that they’ve adopted that particular mile, has value in making people aware of the organization’s existence and presence in a particular area. I’d rather be aware of the presence of a group with a history of social disturbance and violence, then live in a world where they are just as present in my community but hidden.

The controversy at Emory made me think about the value of speech that has been voiced in the recent presidential campaign, speech that is hateful of particular ethnic or religious groups. Again, perhaps there is value in knowing the presence, number, and particular views of those speakers.

Ever since reading this article, I keep thinking about the following:

[Steve Chamson, KKK member] brought up some of the stereotypes of Jews and blacks, adding he is not denigrating an entire race or entire religion. “Alan is a great guy,” he said. “And there are some good black people.”

OK, it’s not exactly a proclamation of total tolerance and inclusion, but it’s still surprising. It makes me optimistic.

Perhaps there’s subtext in intolerant speech: a feeling of formerly being silenced. Perhaps when people no longer feel silenced, but can participate in a conversation, and by being included in conversation with others, tolerance grows.

Photo Credit: Original by the author. This represents the rabbit hole of government speech research I have descended into. CC 2.0.


Posted in Free Speech, Personal/Professional Reflection
One comment on “Reflection: The Value of Offensive Speech
  1. […] Artemisia, my other co-blogger, snuggling a Blue Book. Original photograph of author. CC 2.0. […]


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Constitutional law (mostly civil rights) for everyone! The author of this blog attempts to make legal issues, cases, and news stories with a consititutional connection accessible for any audience. The goal is to provide information, analysis, and an opportunity for conversation. Please feel free to ask questions or respond in the comments or via e-mail. Dialogue, disagreement, and most of all decorum are highly encouraged.
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Information on this blog is provided for educational purposes only and is not legal advice. Reading or interacting with this blog does not form an attorney-client relationship with the author. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney.
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