Philosophy Media Ethics

In Rav vs. City of St. Paul, Justice Scalia speaks on the courts interpretation of the first amendment. In responding to the citys ruling that a young man and his friends were guilty of violating a statute restricting the burning of crosses, Scalia and the court make arguments about the nature of protected speech. Some forms of speech are protected, while others are not, and the court goes to great lengths to explain the scope of the first amendment. The primary point made by Scalia has everything to do with the idea of content-neutral restriction on legislation. He cites many different examples and references much previous case law to get across the point that laws are not meant to prevent different types of expression based upon the intended recipient of the message or the nature of the message itself. While things like the fighting words doctrine has been in place for the courts in history, those restrictions are said to be content neutral, leaving the court in a difficult position when hearing new cases challenging this notion. Scalia makes a convincing argument in his opinion report, as the constitutional right to expression must be protected according to proper jurisprudence, especially when dealing with those cases that involve content-based legislative restrictions.

The city of St. Paul framed its law in an effort to capture the scope of unprotected fighting words, Though the law itself had fair intentions in trying to reduce the difficulty associated with this type of speech and expression, it massively overstepped its bounds and attempted to impose restrictions on the fighting words doctrine that were not intended by the constitution. This is the basis for Scalias argument against St. Pauls law, and it makes a lot of sense from that perspective. Scalia argues that St. Pauls law is unconstitutional on the grounds that it only prevents fighting words expression when that expression is done in a way to anger a certain group of people. He writes, Although the phrase in the ordinance, arouses anger, alarm, or resentment in others, has been limited by the Minnesota Supreme Courts construction to reach only those symbols or displays that amount to fighting words, the remaining, unmodified terms make clear that the ordinance applies only to those fighting words that insult or provoke violence on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender. (Scalia). Though the court may seem to be splitting hairs in this regard, it is apparent that the protection of free speech must be regulated in a manner that is fair and reasonable to all parties involved. Simply put, Scalias argument is a strong one because it illustrates that speech can never be sanctioned on the basis of an isolated group of intended targets. In this particular case, the accused were being prosecuted not because they burned a cross, but because the burning of that cross was directed at a group of black neighbors. Had the burning cross been intended for white neighbors, then the law would not have applied, which presents the major problem with the law itself. It is too narrow in scope, as it is apparent that the Minnesota Supreme Court took great liberties with the fighting words doctrine in order to prevent what they viewed as a rising problem in the city. Scalia argues against their right to manipulate the United States constitution in this way, and makes convincing appeals with his reasoning.

Additionally, Scalia argues that the St. Paul law dictates the speech that can be used by individual sides in a debate. The example provided about the religious rally illustrated this point and adds a certain degree of strength to Scalias claims. He writes, One could hold up a sign saying, for example, that all anti-Catholic bigots are misbegotten but not that all papists are, for that would insult and provoke violence on the basis of religion (Scalia). This describes what might be viewed as an unintended consequence of the St. Paul law, in that it affords certain freedoms to groups, while disallowing alternate debates. It further allows a certain level of speech to be used by dissenting groups, which is inconsistent with the fighting words doctrine.

Scalia goes on in his writing to address an important point. He and the court concede that the intentions of the Minnesota court were pure, and they even go so far as to indicate that the Minnesota court was acting in an effort to bring about a change necessary for the community. The problem, according to Scalia, was that there needed to be a different way of doing that than by restricting speech based upon its content, whatever that may be. He indicated that racially driven speech is not necessarily deemed as fighting language in the sense that the Minnesota court has interpreted it. He makes what some might consider to be a general notation about the nature of fighting words, but one that is necessary for explanation of the courts stance. Scalia writes, As explained earlierthe reason why fighting words are categorically excluded from the protection of the First Amendment is not that their content communicates a particular idea, but that their content embodies a particular intolerable (and socially unnecessary) mode of expressing whatever idea the speaker wishes to convey. St. Paul has not singled out an especially offensive mode of expression  it has not, for example, selected for prohibition only those fighting words that communicate ideas in threatening (as opposed to a merely obnoxious) manner. Rather, it has proscribed fighting words of whatever manner that communicate messages of racial, gender, or religious intolerance. Selectivity of this sort creates the possibility that the city is seeking to handicap the expression of particular ideas (Scalia). The Supreme Court is particularly hard on St. Paul, coming down on not only its methodology, but also its intent. Based upon Scalias explained understand of the way the fighting words doctrine works in the constitution, it can be said that his arguments against the St. Paul ordinance are more than valid. As would be expected from someone in his position, he has articulated a stance that is consistent with modern interpretation of the First Amendment. That is, protecting the right of someone to express a certain message, granted that the message is expressed in proper form. When St. Paul attempted to regulate the actual content in the message, instead of regulating the manner in which the message was communicated, they crossed bounds that cannot be crossed and violated the teenage boys rights.

In coming to its decision, the court also considered just what alternatives St. Paul had for achieving its stated directive. As Scalia indicates, the United States Supreme Court does not take kindly to states dictating and supporting laws that mainly serve to advance their own prevailing interests. Still, if a content-based restriction like the one being bolstered in St. Paul were the only prevailing option for serving the public interest and the greater good, then perhaps it might fall under the constitutions protections. Scalia and company are not convinced that this is the case, and their primary argument is that there are content-neutral ways to serve the interests of the previously oppressed groups living within the city. These measures do not border on censorship and do not threaten the basic rights of expression that are held so dearly. Scalia writes, The dispositive question in this case, therefore, is whether content discrimination is reasonably necessary to achieve St. Pauls compelling interest it plainly is not. An ordinance not limited to the favored topics, for example, would have precisely the same beneficial effect (Scalia). Through all of the points made by Scalia in the document, it becomes clear that courts primary interest in this case is not the practical implication or even the plausibility of such a need. It is, instead, the somewhat black and white interpretation of content-based statutes. The court insinuates that it might even support measures taken by St. Paul that would not restrict speech with such a narrow brush. The issue at hand seems not to be whom the restriction protects but more aptly, whom the restriction does not protect. By bestowing rights on one group on the basis of race, creed, gender, or religion, it is in effect taking rights away from any group that does not fall into that protected class. In this way, Scalia is absolutely correct in his decision that the content of a given message cannot be restricted by the state for the reasons given in Minnesota. Much more restricted and taxed is the medium in which it is communicated, and in absence of a prevailing public need, the state would have no such distinction for writing, enforcing, or defending such an unconstitutional law.

Scalias words are not minced, which helps to bolster his argument in this instance. His closing words on the matter indicate as much, and act as an admonishment to the entire city of St. Paul for its efforts. He writes, In fact the only interest distinctively served by the content limitation is that of displaying the city councils special hostility towards the particular biases thus singled out. That is precisely what the First Amendment forbids. The politicians of St. Paul are entitled to express that hostility  but not through the means of imposing unique limitations upon speakers who (however benightedly) disagree (Scalia). This final quotation provides a powerful look into the thought processes of Justice Scalia and bears out what has been said previously in his opinion. His argument succeeds because he has considered all bases, including the idea of whom exactly the restriction is intended to benefit. For the most part, it can be said that Justice Scalia sticks to a strict constitutional interpretation of the fighting words doctrine, and that he follows form with a hard line stance on the content-based provisions. Discriminating and prescribing speech on the basis of what is in it and who it is intended for, while not similarly offering the same protections across the board does not mesh with the intentions of the fighting words doctrine, which is what Scalia so eloquently addressed.


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