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Why we should be happy about Michael Hunt’s victory?

June 13, 2014

Michael Hunt is about $215,000 richer today (less legal fees) after the LA City Council voted to settle his free speech case against the city.


And we should be happy about that.


In facts of the case are clear. Mr. Hunt (who is black) wore a KKK hood and a T-shirt bearing a racial slur to the meeting of the Department of Recreation and Parks’ Board of Commissioners. He was ejected and later cited for violating the rules of decorum.


But what does that mean? The fact is his protest was political in nature and did not materially impact the ability of the Council to conduct its business. This is important both in terms of the Councils own rules and what the First Amendment states.


The Council’s rules, according to the LA Times, state that “disorderly or boisterous conduct”   is forbidden. This is not, in and of itself, a violation of the First Amendment. The court system has long recognized that the right to free speech does not include the right to suppress other individuals’ rights via making it impossible for them to hear or be heard at public meetings.


But simply wearing apparel intended to spark a reaction does not rise to that level. That has been settled law for decades, even extended to high school students via Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School Districts (1968). The Council had no leg to stand upon on this decision, as the city was informed by its own attorneys and wisely decided to settle.


So why should we be happy? Mr. Hunt appears to be something of a gadfly, who according to the city may have done his best to be cited in order to have some legal grounds to file his suit. (That is disputed by Mr. Hunt’s attorney however, and has not been either confirmed or denied by any independent source.)


The reason we should be happy is that every restriction on speech lessens the value of a public meeting.  We see that in the carefully orchestrated “public” meetings in less free nations where nothing unexpected is ever seen or heard. In most cases, public decorum can become a powerful weapon in the hands of authority to suppress the speech of those who have been wronged. After all, a wronged individual is seldom concerned with decorum. Even if the current authorities have no intention of using that weapon, one cannot be so certain about future authorities.


Most importantly, some who say that only “relevant” speech should be allowed miss the point that the first arbitrators of “relevant” will be the same bodies that have a vested interest in keeping the meetings calm and controversy free. Even if the individual is quickly released and never charged, removing them from the chamber not only silences them, but also sends a message to everyone else in the chamber.


So this case, while being expensive for LA, should be seen as a win for anyone who wants a robust democracy—including people who show up wearing troubling or even outright offensive clothing.





From → Censorship, Politics

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