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Free speech means language on hate signs is protected

Vandals sprayed graffiti on this house in St. Petersburg’s Old Northeast neighborhood just days after the owner posted offensive signs on the lawn, which have since been removed.
Published Jun. 8, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — After offensive signs appeared in front of a home in the Historic Old Northeast neighborhood last weekend, residents wrestled with the line between free speech and hate speech. While they searched for answers, a difficult truth presented itself: Just because speech is hateful doesn't mean it's not protected by the First Amendment.

Saturday evening, signs went up on the pristine, green lawn of 303 27th Ave. N in St. Petersburg. "No fags," "No Jews," "No infidels," "No retards," they read.

While people gawked and took pictures, residents scrambled for a solution. Complaints were made with City Hall, but the city government had no power to get the signs taken down, said Ben Kirby, a spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman.

"The city's goal is to help protect citizens' ability to exercise their free speech," Kirby said. "The city does not regulate constitutionally protected speech on private property."

The only possible grounds for action were the number of signs in the yard, but the signs were taken down by Sunday evening. City code permits "free speech signs" on private property, but has restrictions on things like size and placement.

The First Amendment serves as a shield for all speech, said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, and the instinct to gag speech we disagree with is exactly why we need such protections.

"If we don't defend the free speech rights of the most unpopular among us, even for views that are antithetical to the very freedom the First Amendment stands for, then no one's liberty will be secure," Simon said.

There's a good reason to keep the government at arm's length when it comes to free speech, he said.

"History has taught us that government with the power to censor hateful speech is more apt to use this power to prosecute minorities than to protect them," Simon said.

The only speech the First Amendment doesn't protect is speech that threatens real harm. But some argue it restricts speech that could lead to physical damage but does nothing to protect against emotional damage, which can be equally traumatic.

Society should employ more scrutiny when deciding what deserves to be protected, said Thane Rosenbaum, a distinguished fellow at New York University and author of the upcoming book The High Cost of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment.

"We've interpreted it so literally that almost every word that comes out of your mouth is protected," Rosenbaum said. "We need to ask questions like, 'Are you doing something because you want to introduce an idea or are you doing something because you want to cause fear?' "

When the signs appeared, several neighbors said they felt unsafe in their own neighborhood. But this isn't the first time an incident like this has happened in Pinellas County.

In 2005, a toilet appeared on the lawn of a house in Pinellas Park with a sign that said, "Koran flush 1 p.m."

The owner of the home said he was making a political statement. At the time, Pinellas Park was home to the largest mosque in the county. Much like last weekend, residents felt threatened and looked to city government for a solution, but found none.

PREVIOUS STORY: Offensive signs cause stir in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast neighborhood

Painful as it may be, confronting hateful speech lets people acknowledge values that conflict with theirs, said Lyrissa Lidsky, a law professor at the University of Florida. Lidsky, who is Jewish, took her children to an event at University of Florida Hillel, where the Westboro Baptist Church was protesting. She considered it to be a powerful lesson.

"It's a lesson in citizenry," Lidsky said. "Children learn early on that there are different values in the world, and it's affirming for them to see their families and communities reach out against hate."

The First Amendment is broad because it expects citizens to fight back against speech that makes them feel attacked, Lidsky said.

"The remedy for speech that we hate is counterspeech," Lidsky said.

After the signs had come down, something new appeared at 303 27th Ave. N. Early this week, lines of black spray paint laced across the house's white shutters, in the shape of the anarchy symbol and "Antifa," which refers to the antifascist movement.

Contact Taylor Telford at ttelford@tampabay.com or (513) 376-3196. Follow @taylormtelford.

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