Standing Firm on a Slippery Slope

I did not want to write this column. I did not want to revisit the issue of free speech this soon. I simply cannot avoid it.

Two weeks ago, I told the story of Julie Sbrocco, a librarian in Ohio who was offended by a set of virtually bare breasts on the cover of Talk magazine. She asked her boss to remove the magazine from the library shelf. Her boss said no. Sbrocco quit.

But the real point of the story was the American Civil Liberties Union. In general terms, I decried the fact that the ACLU is so obsessed with the speaker’s freedom and so disdainful of the listener’s. In specific terms, I objected to a quote from an ACLU official about the Sbrocco case. “It’s precisely people like this,” he said, referring to the monumentally unthreatening librarian who stuck to her principles and quit her job to express them, “who make the First Amendment necessary.”

Words, just words—but they seemed to me like a bazooka fired at a kitten.

A far different First Amendment case is in the news this week, however, and one can only wonder whether it will lead to gunplay of the non-metaphorical kind.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has ruled that an anti-abortion web site called “The Nuremberg Files” is speaking freely and properly, and thus cannot be banned or sued for damages, even though it does the following:

*Publishes the names, addresses and photos of abortion-performing doctors in the format of a wanted poster.

*Accuses them of crimes against humanity.

*Crosses out the names of doctors who have been murdered by right-to-life zealots.

The ruling was long anticipated. People thought it would be an important test of the limits of free speech. But it wasn’t. The court, in effect, ruled that there are no limits on free speech. It ruled, in effect, that free speech need not concern itself with the consequences of that speech, no matter how dire. It ruled, in effect, that people can shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Maybe even set the damn fire!

My Sbrocco column brought a depressing amount of mail. Depressing because, up to that point, I had answered almost every letter I had received about every column I’ve written. (Except for the one that accused me of being an empty-headed liberal in the first paragraph and a foaming-mouthed conservative in the last, and in between blasted me for not having served in World War II.) As of two weeks ago, the volume of mail was so great that I could no longer respond to it all.

But I read it all, and tried to answer everyone who disagreed with me. Most of you cited the argument of the slippery slope. Many of you who respond to this column do the same. We do not advocate the murder of doctors who perform abortions, you will say, but if we limit the free speech of those on the anti-abortion fringe, we slip down the slope and limit the free speech of all Americans

Nonsense. Our entire system of laws in the United States is built upon the slippery slope. Example: capital punishment. We prescribe it for murder, treason, kidnapping, and only occasionally. Does anyone believe that jaywalkers will one day be subjected to lethal injection? Of course not.

Why? Because we trust our legal and political authorities to stake out positions on the slippery slope. We put this law at this point on the slope, this one a little higher, this one a little lower. Which is to say that we evaluate, make judgments; we use our brains and our hearts and our experience, rather than hiding mindlessly behind a constitutional amendment that requires constant interpretation and perhaps even re-definition.

But if you insist on the validity of the slippery slope argument, look at the slope that makes up the opposite side of the valley. If one court allows “The Nuremberg Files” to publish as it chooses, who is to say that another court will not allow the worst enemy you have ever had to publish personal information about you, to put your face on a wanted poster, to advocate your demise? Is not that slope as slippery?

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is supposed to ensure freedom.

Freedom, indiscriminately dispensed, has another name. It is called anarchy.