Editorial: A duty of freedom: Tolerating ugly speech

This week a Kane County judge found a Geneva man not guilty of disorderly conduct in a case in which he sent racist, homophobic letters anonymously to people who were part of a Facebook group.

Brenda Gonzalez received one of those letters and testified against Anton L. Purkart. Yet, she was OK with the verdict.

"The upside is the community knows his racist, xenophobic and homophobic beliefs," she told our Harry Hitzeman. "In my opinion, he is a disgusting, vile human, but I respect the judge's decision."

We're fine with the judge's decision, too.

Not that we believe Purkart's actions were acceptable or his sudden bout of atonement genuine, but there are boundaries for protected speech that Purkart clearly didn't surpass.

The Freedom Forum Institute notes that although scholars view unprotected speech in different ways, there are nine basic categories:

obscenity, fighting words, defamation, child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless action, true threats and solicitations to commit crimes.

It's not a felony to be a jerk. We don't have any protections against being offended.

As those who sought retribution against Purkart noted, free-speech cases such as theirs are hard to win. And they should be. It is a very slippery slope.

Who is to say what offends a given person? One might take umbrage at religious witnesses going door to door or politicians and their volunteers handing out literature in the neighborhood. But does any such behavior rise to the level of criminality?

Surely not.

When neo-Nazis, Antifas and the like spread more spirited messages, it is more likely to rile you up. But, unless they're directly inciting violence, making direct threats or resorting to any of the other seven categories of speech, is it criminal? No.

Though the quote is unlikely to have come directly from him, French writer, philosopher and free-speech advocate Voltaire is often credited with embracing the sentiment: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

It's a maxim upon which this nation was founded, but it can be easy to forget when what people say is tasteless, insulting and purely reprehensible.

Such cases may stir us to resent the tolerance freedom sometimes requires, but they can also serve to emphasize our esteem for constructive debate and why we work so hard to protect responsible speech.

And, it's useful to remember that while verbal bullies may have a right to say whatever they like, no one has an obligation to listen.

Back in middle school, if a crowd didn't show up to watch the bully beat someone up after school, what was the point of the fight? Today, there are people everywhere willing to use outrageous words to seek attention. We are wise to remember how effective we can be if we just don't give it to them.

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