When Free Speech Is Too Expensive

When should free speech be stopped? When does it cross some invisible line into public pornography? We’ll see some of that pornographic speech when the various neo-Nazi groups descend on Knoxville August 14. There has been a great deal of community discussion regarding the proper way to respond to their message. One group plans to wear clown suits. Others are suggesting that no one show up. I hope no one gets hurt. The inclusion of hate speech under the protection of freedom of speech has been a long and painful discussion in our country.

The day I took the picture above, I didn’t realize what was coming. I should have. This was a group that gives a cursory nod to various genocides throughout history so they can pull people into their real issue, which is abortion. They show images of the Nazi holocaust, for example, to engage people who acknowledge that human horror, in order to suggest – in a fairly direct manner – that abortion is an equivalent genocide. If you believe that a fertilized egg is the equivalent of a human being, I can see how you could go there.

That perspective, though different from my own, isn’t what bothered me that day. What I found absolutely appalling and what I really question as far as acceptability for a public space is the use of horribly graphic images. Are all images acceptable in a public space? Is that always protected speech? What if a group advocating free sex wanted to show large pictures of their cause to every person, including children, passing by on the square? What if an anti-American group wanted to show pictures of our soldiers being tortured? Is there no reasonable limit? Would this group of anti-abortionists support their right to do so?

To be intellectually honest, I have to ask myself whether the fact that I disagree with this group causes me to hold them to a higher standard. I don’t think so. If an anti-abortion group wants to gather on Market Square and give a lecture or hand out materials to adults who want it, that’s fine by me. If they want to offer me a pamphlet and tell me it has images of abortion inside, fine. I’ll decline and move on and maybe the next person will want to see that kind of thing. But to have large blow-up pictures forcing everyone of every age to look at them is wrong in my opinion.

Taken from one other angle: This same group would likely not want sex education in the schools because they would suggest that it is the family’s prerogative to teach their children about that topic. Yet, they remove the decision of every parent walking through Market Square regarding to what degree and when to expose their children to this complex and controversial topic. That’s hypocritical. The city should not approve this type of display in a public area in which we are working to bring families.