No, That’s Not What ‘Free Speech’ Means


bus benchYet another Christian leader has confused preferential treatment with First Amendment-protected free speech this week. Pastor Lawson Perdue of Charis Christian Center in Colorado Springs has been notified by the local transit bench billboard company that his “Jesus is Lord” ads will no longer be allowed on the benches they control.  The rationale he was given for this change in policy is that the ad company is trying to prevent having to allow hate speech in the future by not allowing “Jesus” on the benches either.  This change was made after an unknown complaint was filed with the company.

I see where they’re going with this, but it may be an overreaction to the complaint.  They’re trying to avoid being sued by someone who wants to display a more controversial message, and could use the allowance of “Jesus” messages as a precedent.  I don’t think that would be a good precedent to allow hate speech, but it could certainly be used to force the ad company to allow Church of Satan or atheism ads, which would be a total affront to American society (/sarcasm).

Of course, Pastor Perdue displayed his lack of understanding of the First Amendment by categorizing this new policy as a violation of free speech.  Those words do not mean what he thinks they mean.  What he, and arguably way too many people, thinks free speech means is that he is free to buy an ad from a private entity and have it say what he wants.  That’s just not true.  Free speech in the Bill of Rights simply refers to the right to say what you want in public without fear of prosecution or other punishment by the State.  It doesn’t mean you can say anything you want without fear of consequence from a private party, and it doesn’t say you can buy an ad from a private party without limitation of its content.

Personally, I hope he sues, just so he can waste some of that tax-free church money and recirculate it into the economy.  My gut tells me that no lawyer with an understanding of the First Amendment would take such a case.  Then again, it’s an opportunity to grandstand in public, so who knows.

UPDATE:  The decision to discontinue the ads was made by the city transit office, not a private company.  However, this doesn’t change much in regard to the premise of the pastor’s complaint.  It becomes an Establishment Clause dispute, which is what the city will be using as its defense of the decision.  Since the ad was a reference to a specific faith, the city can deny the ad by saying approval would constitute favoring one religion over another.  To avoid complaints and maintain neutrality, they could deny religious ads altogether.

Comments

  1. qwints says

    it’s not a private entity, it’s the city transit authority. So it is a free speech issue and a pretty frequently litigated one, with the results usually being pretty fact specific.

  2. Kevin Terrell says

    ” It doesn’t mean you can say anything you want without fear of consequence from a private party, and it doesn’t say you can buy an ad from a private party without limitation of its content.”

    Can a private party, like a bakery,limit content on a wedding cake?

    • says

      They can refuse to make/sell it, yes, depending on the reason. If it’s because the content is hateful/offensive, yes. If it’s because the persons purchasing the cake are of a certain group protected by civil rights laws, then no. Free speech has nothing to do with cakes. No one is being prosecuted for saying something on a cake. If they were, that would be a free speech issue.

      • Kevin Terrell says

        Whether or not something is offensive is largely a matter of opinion.
        “Offensive” seems to mean if it offends a member of a certain group.
        I know of no logically consistent definition of “offensive” which privileges the opinions or feelings of one group over another.

        • says

          Yes, it’s the opinion of the baker/owner of the business. Any gray areas would be fought over in the courts. If you’re looking for a black and white answer to your questions, you won’t get one. Regardless, none of these examples really have anything to do with free speech.

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