Opinion | A Vulgar Anti-Biden Banner: Protected Free Speech?

To the Editor:

Re “The Right to Curse Joe Biden” (editorial, July 25):

You defend a neighbor foisting her huge banner with a vulgar word on anyone who passes by her home. The fact is that this type of sign outside someone’s home is rare because civil society wants it that way.

Whether it’s directed at Joe Biden, Donald Trump or just another neighbor, Western civilization (to the extent it still exists) rightly frowns upon foisting obscenities upon innocent passers-by, including children.

Should we expect to be bombarded by obscene signs outside many more houses going forward? Is this the kind of world The Times’s editorial board wants us all to live in? What, life in America now is just not crude enough for you?

No one’s in favor of forbidding her use of the word — I use it myself, on rare occasions, say if I stub my toe. But imposing gutter-talk on innocent bystanders in nearby homes — including children — is another issue entirely, and it degrades us all.

Peter Rodman
Nashville

To the Editor:

The First Amendment right of free speech is a cornerstone of our constitutional democracy. It generally provides for the right to express oneself on issues of public concern, regardless of the content of the view and whether or not it is wrongminded, offensive or politically incorrect, including unpleasant, crude or even curse words.

The dismissal of the case against a New Jersey woman for hanging allegedly “obscene” anti-Biden banners on a fence outside her home was the correct First Amendment decision (“Court Ruling Lets Woman Keep Up Anti-Biden Signs That Town Called Obscene,” news article, July 28).

Simply put, speech is protected, but conduct is not. Government enforcement of it needs to be applied based on neutral principles.

Increasingly, our nation’s commitment to “open robust” expression is being eroded. The Times editorial reminds us of the importance of this fundamental constitutional right.

Norman Siegel
New York
The writer is a civil rights lawyer.

To the Editor:

Andrea Dick flies some pro-Trump banners with obscene language on them. I have seen a few of these in my area and I am not a bit surprised. The Trump supporters seem to be an angry bunch with no qualms about appearing at statehouses armed, no filters when it comes to yelling and chest-thumping their agendas, and no problem with violent attacks on government property.

Andrea Dick is yet another who has lost her civility and would rather express her opinion with insulting language and bravado, rather than admitting that the election process worked fairly and her macho man lost.

Donald Trump has opened the barn doors for the kind of crude behavior that has become normal. We have replaced common decency and our sense of fair play with lying, insulting and cheating our way through what may become our fading democracy.

Perhaps Andrea Dick is more to be pitied than censured. Perhaps the passing children might learn from these banners what it means to support certain candidates.

Richard Donelly
Providence, R.I.

To the Editor:

On the subject of how to, or whether to, regulate free speech, the government is constitutionally required to accept offensive free speech, but neighbors and the community do not need to remain passive.

In the case of Andrea Dick, the municipal court judge should not have ordered her to remove three banners cursing President Biden with an inflammatory word, but her neighbors and community certainly can, and should, make their disapproval clear.

Being “judgmental” gets a bad rap these days, but it can be a powerful tool. If Ms. Dick’s neighbors asked her to replace the vulgar signs with less obscene anti-Biden signs, she could choose to placate her community and express her political beliefs.

If she chose to keep the vulgar signs up, in a better world than the one we inhabit now, her neighbors would disinvite her kids to come and play, any clubs would close their doors to her, local stores and restaurants would ban her and people would cross the street to avoid meeting her and having to say something pleasant.

If she can’t express her views in a civil manner, civil society should turn its back on her until she can show some community spirit. Some would decry this solution as “cancel culture.” I would cheer it as community culture.

Jonathan Ogle
Piedmont, Calif.

To the Editor:

I completely agree that it is every American’s right to use vulgarity directed at the president. I have litigated First Amendment cases and appreciate your defense of the right. That said, the right has never been construed to apply at all times in all places in all manners without regard to the rights of others who do not wish to listen.

The key has been that government regulations are reasonable and content-neutral. Municipal codes designed to prevent people from being accosted in their own residential neighborhoods, with children present, from billboard-size language that this paper usually won’t print is not unreasonable, as long as it is content-neutral (i.e., it doesn’t matter which president you are cursing).

One might argue that a code using the term “obscene” might be too vague to be enforced, in which case codes may need to start listing particular terms. A certain list from the late, great George Carlin comes to mind as a start.

But in any event, one’s right to free speech does not mean anyplace and anytime in any manner, and if the code being enforced was being applied evenly regardless of the political view expressed, I do not believe that violates one’s right to free speech. That right has never been absolute, nor should it be.

Greg Wrenn
Seattle

To the Editor:

Don’t communities have the right to limit obscenities in public spaces? In my area, young children walk by these vulgar anti-Biden signs. I would not find them appropriate for public display if they said the same thing about Donald Trump, even though I agree with the sentiment.

I worked to make sure my children didn’t use obscene words when they were young. Posting a large fixed banner in public view is not the same as wearing a button or slogan on one’s jacket.

The editorial cites the left’s efforts to bar Mr. Trump from social media because he is “offensive.” No. Mr. Trump was banned because he was spreading election misinformation and interfering with the peaceful transition of power, as your own reporters have described. Expressing one’s opinion on social media doesn’t include the right to harm or incite violence.

Kim Butler
Balsam Lake, Wis.

To the Editor:

I agree 100 percent that every American has the right to free speech. But the case of the signs on the front lawn of a house should not be viewed as about free speech.

I also believe Americans have a right to watch pornography in the privacy of their homes. But if someone set up a giant movie screen on his front lawn and showed pornography all day and night so passing pedestrians and motorists could view it, then this becomes a case of showing obscenity to the public and not about the right to view pornography.

By the same token, a homeowner showing lawn signs with vulgar words is not, in my view, an exercise in free speech. It is the exhibiting of public vulgarity.

Neil Boyle
Jersey City, N.J.

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