Home / Insights / Tolerating Incivility Is the Price We Pay for Freedom, Says Judge

Tolerating Incivility Is the Price We Pay for Freedom, Says Judge

by | Dec 7, 2018 | First Amendment, Media Law

After the 2018 Stoneman Douglas shooting, long-time Florida NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer received emails that would horrify and disgust most people. Graphic images of gunshot wounds inflicted by the shooter. Language described as “vile,” “harassing,” and “threatening.”

Rather than be cowed by the emails, Hammer fought back by filing a harassment lawsuit against the men who sent them, including California lawyer Laurence Sorensen, seeking money damages. Sorensen moved to dismiss the lawsuit. Ms. Hammer’s attorneys argued that the judge should not dismiss the case because it would “[s]end the wrong message at a time when everyone needs to be reminded that there are limits to how people can treat those with whom they disagree.”

A noble and true sentiment that always raises a question of degree—how far can protest speech go before it deserves no protection of the First Amendment? In our free society based on self-government, the answer is a long, long, long way.

Sorensen fought back, arguing that his email and the graphic pictures included were “classic protest speech to a public figure with huge influence in the national debate over gun rights.”

At least in this particular case, the judge agreed.

Though he called the emails “inappropriate, indeed disgusting,” he also said that, “The photographs were germane to the policy debate that Ms. Hammer regularly participated in and Mr. Sorensen apparently sought to join.” He added, “Turning loose a legislature, judge, or jury, to ferret out incivility would deter…the public discourse whose protection is the main job of the First Amendment.”  For many years, Ms. Hammer has been a stalwart advocate for her cause, which often has involved the hottest of hot-button issues.

In other words, the judge reasoned, sending her those emails was not a “civil” thing to do, but sometimes talking frankly about important issues means ignoring civility. That being said, her case against the other men has not been dismissed, so perhaps we’ll see exactly how far incivility is allowed to go. We expect Ms. Hammer to continue her fight.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Parkland shooting took place in 2017. It occurred on February 14, 2018.


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