Free speech vs. decency in Portland

Published June 1, 2017

"Our city is in mourning, our community's anger is real, and the timing and subject of these events can only exacerbate an already difficult situation."So said Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler in explaining why - in the aftermath of the deaths of two good Samaritans - controversial rallies planned for this month shouldn't be held. Wheeler's concern for the raw feelings of his community is understandable, but he is completely off-base in trying to block the planned rallies and dangerously wrong in his reading of the U.S. Constitution.

Wheeler unsuccessfully appealed to federal officials to revoke a permit granted to a group to hold a pro-Trump, free-speech rally Sunday at a downtown federal government plaza. His request that a permit not be granted for a June 10 anti-Muslim rally was made moot when organizers opted Wednesday to cancel the rally and encourage participants to attend a similar event in Seattle instead. The mayor characterized the rallies as "alt-right" and said "hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment."

Actually, as was pointed out by legal scholars and free-speech advocates, Wheeler is wrong about how constitutional protections of free speech have been interpreted by the courts. Speech, no matter how vile or distaseful, is protected in the United States. It can be banned only if it meets the legal threshold of threat or harassment.

It would have been far better for Wheeler to have followed the advice of the Oregon ACLU and reached out to rally organizers to explain why it might be in the community's best interest to postpone the events. Not only are public passions still aroused about the deaths of two men who tried to protect two young women from anti-Muslim insults, but Portland has become the scene of rising tensions and clashes between extremists from both ends of the political spectrum.

Perhaps it is naive to think that organizers of Sunday's rally might have actually listened to the mayor and allowed Portland to mourn the loss of those two fine men without further upset. Sadly, though, decency these days seems to be in short supply in America's political debate. The most recent example was the stunt by comedian Kathy Griffin, who evidently thought it was humorous to portray the beheading of an American president. It was somewhat comforting that Griffin was widely condemned (including by some of the most ardent critics of President Donald Trump) and that she responded with an abject apology. If only the provocateurs in Portland could be so moved.