Friday, September 28, 2012

And Yet Another Example of a Public Figure Who Has a Complete Misunderstanding of the First Amendment

Over the last few years, I’ve become aware of an organization called the Catholic League and its President, William Donohue. My awareness is due to some absolutely jaw-dropping statements from Donohue (at least one of which I’ve previously addressed and others of which may be the subject of a future post). I really don’t know what the relationship between the Catholic League and the Catholic Church may be (or even if there is a relationship). The organization describes itself as “the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization”. More interestingly (at least for the purpose of this post), The Catholic League also says of itself:

Motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, the Catholic League works to safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened.

Thus, with the First Amendment being so important to the Catholic League, you would think that its President would have at least some rudimentary understanding of what the First Amendment really means. Um, not so much.

Read this statement from Donohue, published earlier today (Donohue Barred From Exhibit):

Bill Donohue comments as follows:

Last evening, I held a press conference outside the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery in New York City protesting the Andres Serrano exhibit featuring “Piss Christ.” After talking to the media, I attempted to enter the gallery; it is on the second floor of a building at 37 W. 57th Street.

When I entered the lobby, I was stopped by a man who works for the building. He asked for ID and requested that I sign in. I said okay, and then asked if I could go to the gallery. He said the gallery and the building are two different entities, and that I had to ask the men from the gallery; they were right in front of me in the lobby. I then asked them if I could enter, and they said no, without explanation. At that point I turned to the crowd behind me explaining that my First Amendment rights were being censored by the same people who were proudly displaying Serrano’s crucifix in a jar of urine.

No one else was barred from entering the gallery. Just me. We have all of this on tape, and the quality of both the audio and the video are excellent. Stay tuned.

(Emphasis added.)

Did you get that? Donohue wanted to enter a private art gallery after holding a press conference outside to protest an exhibit. But, in Donohue’s world, by refusing to admit Donohue into the gallery, the owner of the gallery was “censoring” Donohue’s First Amendment rights.

No, Mr. Donohue. The owner of that gallery didn’t censor or violate your First Amendment rights. You exercised your right to protest on the public street. But the gallery owner has absolutely no obligation to admit you into his gallery and you have no First Amendment right of entry or to protest on private property.*

This is a subject that I’ve touched on repeatedly on this blog, in the posts Freedom of Speech Just Isn’t That Complicated (and other notes about Hank Williams Jr.), What the First Amendment Doesn’t Mean, and The First Amendment Does Not Protect Your Stupid, Bigoted Idea from Being Criticized (posted last month). I’m not going to take the time to go into another explanation of the First Amendment. I’ve done that already (see those prior posts). But it seems that fewer and fewer people really understand what the First Amendment does and doesn’t protect. And what’s really frightening about this is that the people who are so blindly ignorant about the First Amendment are just those people who we would expect to actually understand it (well, other than Sarah Palin, I suppose).

The First Amendment is exceptionally important; in fact, I’d argue that it is absolutely critical both to our form of government and to the civil society that we’ve created. That so few people understand even the most basic concepts of what the First Amendment does and doesn’t mean tells me that this core component of our government and societal structure needs much more focus and education.

Update (immediately after posting): One quick point that I meant to make and forgot. Go back and re-read Donohue’s complaint again. Now, if his understanding of the First Amendment were correct, wouldn’t that mean that I have a First Amendment right to walk into the offices of the Catholic League to protest Donohue’s outrageous statements? Wouldn’t that mean that if Donohue refused to allow me in to his office that he would be “censoring” my First Amendment rights? And, again taking his twisted and moronic understanding of the First Amendment, wouldn’t I also have the right to walk into a local Catholic church for the purpose of protesting against the Church’s response to child molestation? Hmm. For some reason, I just don’t think that Donohue would agree that the First Amendment would apply in those situations. And he’d be right. But it doesn’t apply to his attempt to enter the gallery either. And that’s the point.

*The gallery owner might have an obligation to admit Mr. Donohue to a public exhibit and might be in violation, not of the First Amendment (which applies to the government) but of civil rights laws, if the reason for the keeping Mr. Donohue out was based on Mr. Donohue’s religion itself (or his race or other protected class), and if the gallery event were open to the public. Civil rights laws do now, however, prevent a private business owner from refusing to conduct business with someone for reasons other than protected status. Thus, while a restaurant can’t refuse to serve a customer because of the customer’s race, the restaurant would be perfectly within its rights to refuse to admit a customer who desires entry for the purpose of protesting the restaurant’s food.


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At Friday, September 28, 2012 5:16:00 PM , Blogger erk said...

Donohue is one of the very worst. I just started your article, but the name caught my eye immediately.

If you're not aware of it, there's a popular science blog called Pharyngula, written by P.Z. Myers, a prominent atheist scientist blogger. He's had several run-ins with Donohue, mostly centered around "Crackergate" (Myers acquired and then "defiled" a box of Catholic communion wafers).

At Monday, October 01, 2012 12:50:00 AM , Blogger Schmedly said...

Mona Eltahawy is as confused as Donohue. She thinks defacing property is freedom of speech.


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