The right to say awful things Horrible doll: Baltimore County display falls under 1st Amendment.

July 11, 1996

IT IS OFTEN tempting, and always wrong, to try to step around the First Amendment when horrid or hateful ideas rear their head. That they did, on the Fourth of July, when two Baltimore County men strung up a doll in a trailer park with a painted black face and soap pads for hair.

Because the display was set up on the men's property, State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor could not charge them under state hate crime laws. The Supreme Court has made it clear that these laws apply to hate-inspired criminal acts aimed at specific individuals, not mere expressions of hatred. Hence, burning a cross in someone else's yard is illegal because it is an act of trespass and vandalism; states may punish such crimes more harshly because they are hate-inspired. But burning a cross in one's own yard is an expression of a belief, and therefore constitutionally protected.

Of course, mere expressions can hurt or threaten others. Even if the two men were so stupidly drunk, as they claimed, that they really thought of all this as a joke, theirs was a vile display of bigotry. The president of the local NAACP chapter says that freedom of expression should stop at the point where it makes someone else feel afraid. At that point, she says, the expression has victimized someone. And if there are victims, there must be a crime.

The problem with her argument is that different people feel threatened by different things, not all of them as unambiguous and unquestionably awful as that doll. The sight of a Confederate flag inspires trepidation, if not fear, in many African-Americans. Yet no reasonable person would suggest that anyone who displays that flag should be charged with a hate crime. The occasional sight of abhorrent symbols or the sound of repellent words is the price we pay to live in a free nation. We can't ask the government to criminalize some ideas without rendering them all vulnerable.

Citizens have another weapon against tangible expressions of hate -- their own intolerance. Last winter, an Annapolis Ku Klux Klan member built a Klansman snowman in his front yard -- perfectly legal, perfectly offensive. The community demanded it come down. The Klansman was forced to demolish his creation, then was banished to the fringes -- where he and his ilk belong.

Pub date: 7/11/96

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