Saturday, November 14, 2009

Can you shout "Sodomite!" in a crowded theater -- when children are present?

Hi everyone,

It started when a friend called this sign to my attention. It's on Hwy 167 a 100 yards or so from the Richfield Elementary School.

"Hmmm," I said.

Saturday's column.

May one shout sodomite in a crowded theater?

Just west of Richfield Elementary School along Highway 167, someone has erected a sign that reads SODOMITES WILL STILL BURN IN HELL REGARDLESS OF NEW ‘HATE CRIMES’ LAW. It reminded me of the huge OBAMA IS THE ANTI-CHRIST sign that appeared on a front lawn in West Bend just before the election last year, right beside an even bigger Halloween display – I guess it’s OK to celebrate pagan festivals, if candy is involved. That sign seemed to be a clear case of protected speech, even if I am left unable to distinguish it from a Taliban press release.

Sodomites, too, is a phrase of religious origin, but its presence in big capital letters near an elementary school raises some interesting questions about the limits of free speech.

For instance: what if, instead of using words, the landowner had used pictures to deliver his message? Would a picture of two people engaged in sodomy, burning in hell, be acceptable. Would the picture be OK if it was an abstract painting of sodomy? Or would stick figures be more acceptable, say, than a high definition photograph? Shoot, how about a giant JumboTron video screen with a live action DVD playing on a continuous loop during school hours?

In some weird way, the stick figures might be more unsettling.

However you draw it, someone would have complained.

But where do we draw the line on offensive speech shouted in public?

What if the sign contained other, even more obscure, sexually explicit terms? Does lack of familiarity with a word make it less offensive? Or what about one of George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say On TV?” I mean, if the newspaper can’t print them, should neighbors be expected to tolerate them on a yard sign?

I thought of other avenues of protest and wondered whether the sign maker could get vanity license plates that say H8SODOMY? Probably not. The relevant Wisconsin Department of Transportation statute says the DOT may “refuse to issue any combination of letters or numbers, or both, which the department determines may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency or which may be misleading.” (Sec. 341.145 (7), Stats.). There are some sneaky and amusing, but mostly unprintable, examples at The Smoking Gun Web site, which has a collection of letters complaining about Wisconsin license plates from over the past 20 years. Frankly, if some of those terms weren’t allowed, sodomy is probably off limits too.

Even if you can’t put SODOMITE on a license plate in Wisconsin, the sign in Richfield protests recent legislation and thus remains protected political speech. The only time government should step in is when someone starts shouting fire in crowded theater. So, does the right to free speech protect someone who shouts sodomite in a crowded theater? Yep.

The phrase, “Shouting fire in a crowded theater” originally appears in the 1919 U.S. Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States. What Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes actually wrote was this: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” This test was overturned in 1969 by Brandenburg v. Ohio which imposed even stricter constraints on when the government can restrict speech; specifically, the Brandenburg case limits the scope of banned speech to language that is intended and likely to “incite imminent lawless action” – like a riot. I don’t foresee rioting in Richfield.

So, vanity plates notwithstanding, it looks like sodomite is shoutable in a crowded theater and is, thus, protected under the Constitution.

There is one wrinkle worth considering, however.

Like most protests that depend on sexual (or racial) bigotry, the sign in Richfield trips over its own feet. Think about it: the sort of people who write things like “SODOMITES WILL BURN IN HELL” typically don’t want fourth-graders thinking about sodomy. But in the same way that trying to ban books simply encourages kids to read precisely those books, a big whopping sign with the word SODOMITE on it will encourage every kid who saw it from the school bus to immediately locate a dictionary and look it up – and then tell their friends.

Merriam-Websters online dictionary has: sodomite: “one who practices sodomy.” Kids are smart. They’ll look up sodomy next, which Merriam-Websters online defines as “anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex; also copulation with an animal.” Next they’ll look up “copulation.”

I confess I’d forgotten that sodomy includes sex with animals, but I’ve probably lived a more sheltered life than the sign writer. We can, however, safely assume that copulating with animals will now be cemented into the psyche of every child at Richfield Elementary school who looked it up, and we have this sodomite-hating protester to thank for increasing their vocabularies.



DanBack said...

"But where do we draw the line on offensive speech shouted in public?"

Sadly, I imagine a good chunk of Washington County doesn't find that offensive. I kind of give the person credit for having the balls to come out and say it, rather than say, hide behind the idea of having Sodomites labeled and moved to a different section of the county. For the protection of children, dontcha know.

"anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex"

Wow, I actually had no idea it included anal and oral sex between opposite sexes. So pretty much everyone is going to burn in hell?

"I confess I’d forgotten that sodomy includes sex with animals, but I’ve probably lived a more sheltered life than the sign writer. "

Pure gold, Mark.

Anonymous said...

Thankfully the kids will read, use library resources, on line resources and generally become better educated. Everyone wins.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for corrupting me even further by filling my head with ideas! Well done. You got several jabs within your word limit. You may have been a great boxer too. JPenterman

James Dionne said...

After the whole West Bend library mess, *NOW* you're worried about what our kids see and read over someones' first amendment rights issues? Hypocrisy is still thy middle name, Mark. You're only pissed off because you do not agree with the religious speakers message. I would have thought you, as a protector and champion of the first amendment, would certainly have fought tooth and nail for his right to say whatever he wants (as long as it isn't obscene by community standards and is on private property). Seriously, by your twisted logic, if this person writes this very phrase in a book and calls it children's literature, then that's OK? No, I actually agree with you Mark, it isn't, and the controversial library books aren't OK for children either, and deep down you know it. But the clear lesson revealed to me by you from the library debate is that you just can't have your free speech and block it too. I just wish you would listen to your own waffling arguments and take a consistent stand.

P.S. Kevin S- please stop posting. Your posts are not eloquent, logical, respectful, nor humorous and you're really not helping.

Mpeterson said...


I can say without irony that I would defend this sign-writer's rights to speak, put up a sign, and even shout in crowded theaters. I'm actually pretty hard core about that... which is why I supported the library. Having supported them, you're quite right: I'm bound to support this protest as well.

But I don't have to do it blindly. I was simply overcome by the shrieking irony of the sign-writer's circumstance -- his/her ironic self-contradiction was my interest, not his/her right to free speech.

Part of the irony is that they probably would be in favor of censoring words like "sodomite" around 4th graders, but a bigger part is the near certainty that this person would never be inclined to defend *my* right to free speech.

John Jost said...

James D, can't you really see the difference? The kids don't have to open the library book, but they have to see the sign on their way to and from school.
C'mon now.

Anonymous said...

OMG you made me laugh I had to spit out my milk. Note to sef, never drink a glass of milk while reading Mark's piece.

Kristina said...

Could you put up the link to the smoking gun site. I would love to see some of those tags (personalized plates). Thanks

kevin Scheunemann said...


You miss articulating the underlying issue, clearly.

The sign is privately funded.

You have no say. (Unless you are trying to make the case that you are a censor.)

The library is funded by the public. Everybody has a say.

That is the flaw in making the comparison here.
James Dionne said, "Your posts are not eloquent, logical, respectful, nor humorous and you're really not helping."

Have you taken a look at some of the stuff written in response to some of my eloquent posts? I *lol* when you say my posts lack "respect" by comparison.

As far as eloquence, logic , and humor, I was not aware that was a requirement. We've already established this blog, while highly interesting and enjoyable, has no basis in logic.

You can always skip over my comments, but we both know we will read each others post!

Anonymous said...

I have no knowledge of any library institution blowing up a controversial book open to a controversial portion of the text to the point of where the print is visible from 100 feet away and placing said text in a public thoroughfare. To my knowledge, this has not occurred within any library whereby a controversial book was opened to a controversial portion of the text to the point of where the print is visible from 3 feet away and placed in a public foot traffic lane. Nor has there been on record any physical or armed assault(s) by librarians on the public whereby librarians forced people to read or listen to any (audio) book, other library media or even said library's patron policy.

In truth, Librarian are (as a majority ) pathetically, non- aggressive, hermit -like creatures. They would possibly do the public better service if forced to take rhoids and receive ego-enhancement from the like of professional public speakers like Pat Buchanan, Ben Stein Cal Thomas, G. Gordon Liddy, and Ted Nugent.

Mpeterson said...

Kristina, sure:

DanBack said...

Kevin - I assume you still have not yet read The Perks of Being a Wallflower?