Column: Qualified free speech

A previous editorial in the Hatchet spoke quite definitively about the constitutional rights to speech and assembly (“Commies are the problem?” Nov. 13, p. 4); these rights are not as definite as that writer would like to believe. In fact they’re as open to interpretation and public judgment as any other government statement, even more so because due to their supposed infallibility, exceptions that are found have the potency to destroy them wholly.

A New York law passed in 1845 dictates that groups cannot publicly assemble while wearing masks. In 1999 the Ku Klux Klan brought the law to the U.S. Court of Appeals protesting that their group’s members’ safety would be in question if they were forced to assemble publicly without their masks hiding their identities. They believed that this infringed the constitutional right of the freedom to assemble under the protection of the government.

The law was upheld. NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, “This was a rational conclusion. Hate groups like the KKK should be accountable for their actions. They should not be able to hide behind masks in the event they act unlawfully. Moreover, decent people of common sense are revolted by the KKK’s message and will surely reject it.” The mayor basically states that a group disliked by the public should no longer have the right to safely assemble. His justification is the possibility that groups may act unlawfully. The courts not only took away the right to assemble, but justification lied in calling someone guilty until proven innocent. And you know what? People didn’t seem very upset that the KKK couldn’t get a parade permit as a result of all this.

According to the USA Patriot Act non-citizens can be jailed indefinitely without judicial review for speaking in favor of terrorism; free speech indeed. Free speech seems to only be guaranteed for people who speak within the confines of acceptable parameters set by popular consent.

This issue returns to the articles in the previous few editions of The Hatchet about the condemning of the communists and the retaliation by those who believe in our so-called constitutional rights. In New York the large population of minorities would have had a major problem with a KKK march. As a result of large-scale public disagreement with the KKK’s opinions, the group’s rights to speech and assembly were struck down.

The unequal and inconsistent defense of constitutional rights takes away some of the validity of our government and for what this nation is supposed to stand.

When the KKK case came forward in NYC, Norman Siegel a Jewish lawyer from the NYCLU came forward in support of the KKK’s right to assemble with their masks on. He was called a “traitor” by the Jewish Defense Organization. In America, people just don’t care about constitutional rights if those rights are being used to speak out against them or by someone who doesn’t like them. When a large enough group of people have an issue with someone else’s rights, those rights seem to disappear. “The American Way” seems to be one of mob justice and popular consent, constitutional rights are secondary to what the people judge acceptable.

The writer is a freshman majoring in international affairs.

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