Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Quotable: Silvergate on Gates and Crowley and Freedom of Speech

Cambridge, Massachusetts First Amendment lawyer, Harvey A. Silvergate at Forbes Magazine, on Citizen Gates and Officer Crowley:
...Put more simply, why do we as a society so often ignore traditional notions of First Amendment freedom to speak one's own notion of truth to power when one party to the confrontation is wearing a uniform, a badge and a gun?

Some of the media commentary is quite remarkable, replete with claims that Crowley had a right to arrest Gates because the professor was loud and offensive. Yet what has happened to the notion that under the First Amendment, loudness is OK as long as one is not waking up neighbors in the middle of the night (known as "disturbing the peace"), and offensiveness is fully protected as long as it stops short of what the Supreme Court has dubbed "fighting words"?

This gets us to the heart of the matter. Under well-established First Amendment jurisprudence, what Gates said to Crowley--even assuming the worst--is fully constitutionally protected. After all, even "offensive" speech is covered by the First Amendment's very broad umbrella. Think about it: We wouldn't even need a First Amendment if everyone restricted himself or herself to soothing platitudes. I've been doing First Amendment law for a long time and I've never had to represent someone for praising a police officer or other public official. It is those who burn the flag, not those who wave it, who need protection.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

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