Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Speech promoting fear near school-zone not protected

A Madison man recently got arrested for mooning his neighbors, allegedly "gyrating" his rear-end towards them from his window. When he was arrested, he told cops his neighbors were lying, that what actually happened was he was having sex in his house.

None of this is relevant, except perhaps only to paint a picture of this man's typical behavior, because police ended up finding a sign outside his home with a disturbing message. It read, "Euthanize Welfare Kids."

Paul Olson has a history of placing such signs near his property. According to WISC, he's placed similar signage near his home before:
Police said he once painted his car with words suggesting that illegal immigrants be deported. Police said he also hung a flag displaying a swastika.
In fact, police have been to Olson's home fifteen times this year alone.

Besides their obvious offensiveness, Olson's signs present a difficult question: to what extent do our free speech rights protect such blatant hate, such disregard for human life? Obviously everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, but does Olson's case present a different take on it?

The sign in question is nearby a school, so plenty of children, including some on welfare, would be subjected to Olson's terrifying notion. Given Olson's history, his neighbors are also concerned that he might do something harmful -- indeed, many of them refused to give out their names for the story WISC conducted.

Olson's behavior is eccentric, to say the least. But his signage is decidedly political as well, which means his speech is protected by the First Amendment.

Yet, there ARE limits to that protection. If the speech in question causes harm to others, it can be restricted. You can't erroneously yell "FIRE!" in a crowded theater, for example, nor make threatening phone calls to members of the community and claim you are protected under the law to do so. Harassment, too, is not protected under the Constitution. It stands to reason, then, that Olson's speech, harassing in nature, isn't protected by his First Amendment rights -- they may cause severe psychological harm to both students walking nearby as well as their parents who are concerned for their safety.

For now, Olson has been forced to remove the sign because it violates city ordinances based on its size. It's a temporary solution to a larger problem. While people like Paul Olson are entitled to their rights, we must also be mindful of the rights others have, among them the right to feel safe in their community. Olson, by placing the signs that he owns within a school-zone, violates those rights.

In short, Olson can exercise his First Amendment rights in more productive ways than through fear.

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