Home » Legal Stuff » Viewpoint Discrimination

Viewpoint Discrimination

14 March 2019

As some visitors to TPV will already understand, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This amendment protects four fundamental rights of US citizens:

  1. Freedom to exercise their religious beliefs and prohibition against the creation of a government-approved religion
  2. Freedom of individual and collective speech and of the press
  3. The right to peaceably assemble for political and other purposes
  4. The right to communicate with government entities and individuals within the government regarding the improper operation of government

Among the elements of the First Amendment, freedom of speech and of the press – a means of disseminating speech beyond an individual or small group to a broader audience – has often been described as the most fundamental of the rights of a free people and the most necessary if government oppression and overreach is to be avoided.

First Amendment law is a wide-ranging and extensive field that has evolved and expanded over time. At the time of its passage, the “press” was based upon the printing press and generally comprised the printing of newspapers, books, pamphlets and posters.

Broadcast media of various types, including satellite broadcasting (which media are subject to government licensing and, in some cases, international treaties, due to the limits to the usability of various portions of the spectrum and the potential for interference with signal reception without some sort of system for allocating exclusive use of slices of spectrum bandwidth) and the Internet are also subject to First Amendment protection in the US.

The prohibition against unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech generally affects restrictions by government, not by private individuals or organizations. A private homeowner can prohibit an individual or group of people from loudly protesting on the front lawn of the lot on which the home is built with virtually no restrictions. However, if the protest is held on a public sidewalk in front of the homeowner’s property, the circumstances under which the local government may prohibit or restrict such a protest fall under the ambit of the First Amendment’s speech protections.

One element of First Amendment law is Content Discrimination by government, described as:

[G]overnment has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. . . To permit the continued building of our politics and culture, and to assure self-fulfillment for each individual, our people are guaranteed the right to express any thought, free from government censorship. The essence of this forbidden censorship is content control. Any restriction on expressive activity because of its content would completely undercut the ‘profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open. (Wikipedia)

An especially-protected sub-part of Content Discrimination is Viewpoint Discrimination. Restrictions that apply to certain viewpoints but not others are usually overturned by courts when challenged.

Viewpoint discrimination is a form of content discrimination particularly disfavored by the courts. When the government engages in content discrimination, it is restricting speech on a given subject matter. When it engages in viewpoint discrimination, it is singling out a particular opinion or perspective on that subject matter for treatment unlike that given to other viewpoints.

For example, if an ordinance banned all speech on the Iraq War, it would be a content-based regulation. But if the ordinance banned only speech that criticized the war, it would be a viewpoint-based regulation. (The First Amendment Encyclopedia)

In the United States, particularly in some colleges and universities, some specific terms have come to be regarded as beyond the pale. The use of terms that are deemed disparaging to certain ethnic groups have fallen into that category, regardless of whether they were historically used as a neutral description of individuals of a certain race.

From Forbes:

Imagine that a group of musicians called themselves The N-Words. The uproar would be loud and swift, but should government deny them the right to use that name? As abhorrent as we might find that name, the answer is no. Government should be neutral on art, not judge it.

Censorship should not be wielded as a tool to suppress creativity in the marketplace , but it has been at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) until earlier this summer.

The Slants, an Asian-American band which adopted the slur against Asian people in hopes of turning it into something “beautiful or a point of pride,” were denied when they applied for a trademark by the PTO to protect their band’s name. Trademarks, a type of intellectual property, prevent other businesses from using similar marks or names that could cause confusion. They also allow the PTO to police against copycats and bring legal action against those who infringe.

The Slants’s application was denied on the grounds that the name violated the “disparagement clause” of federal trademark law. This clause prohibits the government from granting trademarks that insult any group of people. The Slants successfully appealed their case in various courts, but the PTO held firm and took the case to the Supreme Court, where The Slants won on free speech grounds (Matal v. Tam).

The Supreme Court unanimously struck down the disparagement clause as unconstitutional. Justice Samuel Alito Jr., who wrote the opinion, affirmed a “bedrock” principle of the First Amendment: speech cannot be banned because it offends. Alito noted, “We have said time and again that ‘the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.’”

. . . .

Government does not have license to shut down art that offends or messages they disapprove of – even those that others might find offensive, distasteful, and hurtful. The proper role of government is to provide and protect intellectual property rights — no more.

This case came at a critical moment. From college campuses to the entertainment industry, speech police are trying to ban any speech that offends their sensibilities. The Supreme Court has affirmed that every American has a right to express his or her thoughts – even if they offend others. The First Amendment precisely protects minority and dissenting views such as using a slur as the name of a band.

Link to the rest at Forbes

PG realized that the term “beyond the pale” has also fallen into disuse, although he is not aware of anyone describing it as “The BTP-Words”.

From The Phrase Finder:

‘[P]ale’ is the noun meaning ‘a stake or pointed piece of wood’, a meaning now virtually obsolete except as used in this phrase, but still in use in the associated words ‘paling’ (as in paling fence) and ‘impale’ (as in Dracula movies).

The paling fence is significant as the term ‘pale’ came to mean the area enclosed by such a fence and later just figuratively ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’.

Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, ‘beyond the pale’.

Pales were enforced in various other European countries for similar political reasons, notably in Ireland (the Pale of Dublin) and France (the Pale of Calais, which was formed as early as 1360).

The phrase itself originated later than that. The first printed reference comes from 1657 in John Harington’s lyric poem The History of Polindor and Flostella. In that work, the character Ortheris withdraws with his beloved to a country lodge for ‘quiet, calm and ease’, but they later venture further:

“Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-walk”.

Such recklessness rarely meets with a good end in 17th century verse and before long the lovers are attacked by armed men with ‘many a dire killing thrust’. The message is clear – ‘if there is a pale, decent people stay inside it’, which conveys exactly the figurative meaning of the phrase as it is used today.

Link to the rest at The Phrase Finder

Legal Stuff

6 Comments to “Viewpoint Discrimination”

  1. “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only a unanimity of the graveyard.” – Hon. Robert Jackson, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

  2. Yay! I’m so sick of hearing people talk about making “hate” speech illegal. It’s like they were born without a brain or something.

    • Ah, but they hate any speech that doesn’t say what they want to hear.

      Oh, they have brains, too bad they’ve been trained not to use them …

    • “Hate speech” is beyond the pale. And from PG’s helpful explanation of the term, it seems that the pale is the boundary of a paling, a safe space.

      So all this time they’ve been saying “hate speech is stuff that’s not allowed in my safe space”. Not a reason to make it illegal, unless they are trying to expand their safe space. Forced expansion into other territory is invasion.

      They’ve been telling us their plan the whole time.

  3. A few years back, a Washington Post columnist was condemning some politician’s use of a term that referred to some aspect of persecution of Jews. He told us such references were beyond the pale.

  4. Thanks, PG. A helpful post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.