Hustler

The New York Times 'reports' on an old mantra: Free speech for me, but not for thee

The New York Times 'reports' on an old mantra: Free speech for me, but not for thee

If you are a journalist of a certain age, as well as an old-guard First Amendment liberal, then you remember what it was like trying to get people to understand why you backed ACLU efforts in 1978 to defend the rights of a neo-Nazi group to march through Skokie.

Clearly this march was going to cause pain and emotional suffering, since that Chicago suburb included many Holocaust survivors. But First Amendment liberals stood firm.

If you grew up Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt, it was also hard to explain why you thought Hustler magazine had the right to publish a filthy, sophomoric satire of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, including a fake claim that he had committed incest with his mother in an outhouse.

That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a New York Times report at the time noted, this Hustler piece was clearly satire and the First Amendment wasn't supposed to protect people from feeling offended or even abused by voices in the public square.

The central legal issue is whether, in the absence of the kinds of false statements purporting to be fact on which libel suits are based, a public figure like Mr. Falwell should be able to win damages from a publication that intentionally causes emotional distress through ridicule, tasteless or otherwise.

Several Justices suggested they were grappling with a conflict between the freedom of the press to carry on a long tradition of biting satire, and what Justice Antonin Scalia called the concern that ''good people should be able to enter public life'' without being exposed to wanton abuse in print.

I remember, back then, liberals saying they would be quick to defend the First Amendment rights of conservatives who spoke out on tough, tricky and even offensive issues.

This brings me to one of the most Twitter-friendly stories of this past weekend, a Times report that ran with this rather blunt headline: "Weaponizing the First Amendment: How Free Speech Became a Conservative Cudgel." It's amazing how little religious content is in this report, in light of waves of religious-liberty fights in recent years.

If you are looking for the thesis statement or statements in this article -- which I think was meant to be "news," not analysis -- here it is: 

... Liberals who once championed expansive First Amendment rights are now uneasy about them.


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