ACLU takes on local hate speech case
Is hate speech free speech? That was the question posed by the UF Law Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday, when the Florida Northeast Regional Office Director, Benetta Standly, came to campus.
The main topic of the discussion was a local story that has been hard to miss this year. Last July, Dove World Outreach Center posted a sign near the church declaring, “Islam is of the devil.” The sign raised the ire of many in town, but the story became national news when students wore t-shirts with the same message on them to their first day of school. The students were sent home for violating the dress code, and an argument about the First Amendment and schools has been raging since.
The children then approached the ACLU, which had already declined requests from its members to advocate against the church when the sign was first put up. The ACLU took on the case, but Standly made a clear distinction between her personal opinion and what she believes the First Amendment allows.
“We thought, as individuals, as human beings, that this was a message of religious intolerance,’ she said. “This was a message that many of us disagreed with, but we don’t take cases based on our personal opinions, we take cases based on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
Standly said the organization took on the case because they firmly believed it met the Tinker standard, created in the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that it was an unconstitutional limitation on free speech when students were disciplined for wearing armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. That decision hinged on the court’s finding that the speech did not substantially interfere with the educational environment, and the ACLU’s ability to win this case will likely require such a finding.
Standly spent much of her time addressing questions from students, but students were not the only ones in attendance. Saeed Khan, a professor at the UF College of Medicine and past president of the Muslim Association of North Central Florida, also attended. Khan has been outspoken regarding these events, and wanted to make it clear that Muslims were not the only ones offended by this message. “When there was a protest outside the church,” he said. “Eighty percent of the 110 people there were Christians and Jews.”
By taking the case, Standly said the ACLU has outraged some of its members. She described getting dozens of calls from members who wanted to cancel their memberships, some of whom compared the situation to what happened in Skokie, Illinois more than 30 years ago. In that case, neo-Nazis were facing opposition from the town of Skokie in response to their plans to hold a march. Then, too, the ACLU stood in, fighting for the rights of the neo-Nazis.
Standly said that they do their best to stand by their principles, even if it doesn’t always win them much support.
“Our guiding posts are always going to be the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” she said, “which is often very unpopular.”