Gerber: Free speech ignites anger, angst in Manchester

Gerber: Free speech ignites anger, angst in Manchester

June 9th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

On the surface, defending free speech seems noble and necessary. But when you get down to it, it's a task that can be distasteful, no matter how strongly you believe in it.

The problem is, some of the statements made in the name of free speech are patently offensive to many people. Or a statement is abhorrent and ignorant to some and enlightened and informed to others.

Free speech, something journalists hold dear, is a messy business. U.S. Attorney Bill Killian learned that last week when he headed to Manchester, Tenn., to talk, in part, about the First Amendment.

"Let me be clear, in this country, hateful speech is allowed," Killian told a crowd of "up to 1,000." It's protected by the First Amendment, he said.

But Killian, who is the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Tennessee, said threats of violence are not protected speech and they will be prosecuted. He attempted to discuss hate crimes, civil rights and the federal laws that prescribe violations and penalties.

He was called a traitor and a serpent by some members of the audience. Some in the crowd felt he was using the idea of hate crimes to quash their right to say what they think, to step directly on their First Amendment rights to not like something and be able to say they don't like it.

In this case, it was Muslims.

Killian said the event was organized to improve relations between local residents and their Muslim neighbors, which have not always been smooth sailing in Middle Tennessee, home to an Islamic mosque in Murfreesboro that provoked strong condemnation -- even vandalism and a bomb threat -- when it was being built.

Killian's meeting followed Coffee County Commissioner Barry West's posting on Facebook of an illustration of a man pointing a double-barreled shotgun with the caption: "How to wink at a Muslim." West later apologized and made peace with local Muslims.

Despite Killian's message and assurances, many have questions about where free speech ends and a genuine threat starts.

First Amendment Center President and Executive Director Gene Policinski told Times Free Press reporter Ben Benton that a threat must be directed at a specific person and officials must believe its likely to happen before they can restrict speech.

But even when the threats are specific, it doesn't mean authorities are alerted. Heck, readers call and email all the time, shouting (yes, you can shout in an email) all kinds of threats against Clay Bennett, the Times Free Press editorial cartoonist, and we don't call police.

It's the First Amendment's protection of free speech and a free press that allows Bennett and other journalists to do their jobs. Many people love his cartoons; many find them offensive. He's been called an "imbecilic hate-monger," a "beast" and a "very sick maniacal leftist terrorist" -- and that's just a few choice comments found in a quick search of my email inbox. Really.

He's also been called an "exceptional talent," "fabulous!" and "a treasure that makes Chattanooga look more enlightened than we really are."

The thing about free speech is that it cuts both ways. We must allow the statements that offend us and make our blood boil along with the statements with which we agree. And what may seem insulting to me might be a spot-on insight to you.

The Manchester meeting is a good example. Comments on the Times Free Press Facebook page about the event show a huge divide:

"Stupid hicks."

"I think it's also fun to note that literally every face I see in the picture for this article is middle-aged and white... Glad this ignorance is slowly dying off."

"What mutant would try to combine Christianity with the Klan or Neo Nazi's paganism?"

"Glad your kind hasn't been in control very often, or we'd all be living in the 15th century."

"Teabillys!"

"Dang! So many in one place at the same time! I call that a missed opportunity. I will never respect nor forgive anyone who practices the religion in who's name America was attacked!"

"After this scene, I say the South is too ... dumb to rise again."

"Islam is evil. Killian is just another politically correct communist idiot who hates America."

One Facebook poster stated that Jesus loved the terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Centers. She later removed her post.

Obviously, the posters don't agree. Certainly, many made controversial comments. But, like the whole smackdown in Manchester, they're all entitled to their views. The First Amendment was exercised without restriction.

And in the end, that's what we should be concerned about, no matter what side of the debate we land on.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.