by James Strauss

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as it was written and enacted into law: “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 single sentence is perhaps the most contentious of the entire document because what it states is so seemingly understandable, fair and logical while its interpretations take up volumes of writing about decisions attempting to make it applicable to everyday life in America. The sentence has been taken apart and reassembled into a set of rules of national conduct that bears little resemblance to the original wording.

Everyone learns in elementary school that crying “fire” inside a filled theater is illegal and likely punishable with huge fines and time in prison. Shouting “fire” in the mythical theater is the perfect example of just how hard it is to take well intended and clearly stated law and make it work for everyday life and for regular citizens. According to the U.S. Constitution no law can be made to abridge this freedom of speech but that could not be made to work so the the words freedom and speech were worked over by the courts in a process called ‘case law.’ Case law is the legal phrase used to describe a distillation of a written law into something that can be used in everyday life. Nobody is ‘free’ to ‘speak’ the word fire in a filled theater, anymore than they are to threaten the president’s life. That’s illegal too for the same hazy, but vitally real, reasons as the fire thing.

In fact, it’s illegal to say a whole lot of things nobody thinks much about unless some force of government raises the issue over some specific statement or set of statements. Barack Obama’s presidency, one of the most openly deceptive of all time, when it comes to the release of information or the charging of people for such release, is the first executive administration, in modern times, to use the old Espionage Act of 1917 to arrest and convict American citizens for speaking or engaging in acts that are counter to American policy in a time of war. This is a time of war, and with the sliding definition used to define the word ‘terrorism’ this current war on terror is likely to go on and on into a far distant future.

Can you call a police officer a pig and get away with it, as was done so often in the late 60’s? Legally, yes. But with the changing attitude and policies of policing across the United States of late it is very likely that you would be promptly beaten, tased, or even worse, and the officers would be unlikely to be prosecuted for such actions. What is enforcement?  Street justice is a phrase that was invented back in the sixties to apply to such fuzzy situations. The invention of micro-video recording devices, and the video functions on mobile phones, have done a lot to alert the public to applications of ‘street justice,’ but it is often still perceived as a viable solution to the problems being dealt with as regards interpreting the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Almost three weeks ago a student attending Badger High School allegedly told another student that she should wear red to avoid being shot, as he knew a bunch of other students were going to shoot the school up on the last day of classes. The student who heard the warning told her mother who then put up a letter of frustration on her Facebook Page. A hard copy of that letter was given to the staff of the Geneva Shore Report. Immediately the editorial staff was thrown into a freedom of speech controversy, as well as the old ‘yelling fire in the theater’ dilemma.  Is a bomb scare a warning of a real bomb, or is it a hoax? Was the threat delivered to the student by the other student real, or a hoax? Beyond answering that question remains the difficulty of how such a verbalization, translated into the written word, should be taken and/or reacted to. Should work go on in a building where a bomb threat was delivered, or should the building be evacuated and checked out?

Or should all warnings be presumed to be a hoax and not reacted to at all? Should this young man’s warning have been ignored after preliminary investigation (it was turned over to the local police immediately) and kept quiet (as they were), or should the letter on Facebook be published in the paper? After a lot of thought and some phone calls the Geneva Shore Report decided to write a short, abbreviated article about the threat in last Wednesday’s edition. Controversy has ensued. Controversy even to the extent that the mother of the girl who repeated the ‘warning’ denied almost every element of the story, even though her letter (published in its entirety in this issue) stated clearly every detail of what happened.

Was the threat real? Most probably not. Was the boy who told the female student punished? Yes, he was. Counter to the U.S. Constitution, but certainly well within the guidelines of case law about ‘free speech.’ If case law wasn’t considered, then street justice could take over and out he’d go. Should this young man have been allowed to makeup such a story, or repeat it, even if it was true? That is the question that this article is trying to deal with. Two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark decision on the Stolen Valor law decided that it was the law of the land that citizens and others living in the United States are not bound by the truth. It is legal to tell lies. However, and this was not written at the time the court issued its succinct decision, what lies might be told and what penalties might be applied for telling lies (or even truths) that society finds uncomfortable or unwilling to deal with, was not delineated.

Was the Geneva Shore Report correct to publish the story, and potentially ruin the graduation day coming up this weekend? Was it right to publish it even if there was no perceivable shred of evidence that the boy was telling the truth? Nobody would argue that second question although attempting to define ‘perceivable shred of evidence’ might take years to accomplish. Is it ever right to lie, although everyone does it all the time? Under what circumstances should it be illegal to lie? The courts have been of little help in deciding that. It is accepted (and wholly encouraged) for accused criminals to lie under oath and say they did things everyone knows they didn’t do in order to accept a plea bargain in a case. Yet, in that same court, cases for perjury are prosecuted every day. What is the difference between those two perspectives on lying? Nuanced but there. It was definitely against the law if that student indicated that he was going to shoot up Badger High School himself, but what law makes it illegal for him to make up a story that someone else might? These are difficult decisions to make. The school suspended the boy for two weeks, which was not a punishment for criminal activity, and the police closed the case without sending it up for prosecution.
These are difficult decisions to make and deserving of all of our thoughts.
~James Strauss

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