Letter writer: The First Amendment has limits

Write to Mountain Xpress
Graphic by Lori Deaton

I am mystified as to why the Xpress saw fit to publish on Dec. 28 the rambling, noxious letter from Alan Ditmore, a self-described trailer-dwelling Trump supporter, in which he advocates for the unprovoked bombing of Mecca [“A Reason to Hope With Trump”].

Were you simply short a couple of column inches of copy and needing to fill that space? Or have you, as journalists, forgotten that the First Amendment does have some prudent, historical limitations. Among them, the Supreme Court has ruled that one does not have the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. They have also held that “advocacy of the use of force” is unprotected when it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.”

What will keep America great is not the bombing of innocents in Mecca or anywhere else, but remembering the fundamental tenets upon which our country was founded, namely: That all people are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What will also make America great is for Mr. Ditmore to go back inside his trailer and stay there; and for you, as journalists, to use better judgment regarding what is — and what is not — fit to print.

— Michael Breck
Asheville

Editor’s response: Since a core part of Xpress’ mission is to strengthen democracy by promoting thoughtful dialogue, we believe it’s important to provide a forum for a full discussion of civic issues. The exception to the First Amendment of falsely shouting “Fire!” in a theater (to avoid starting a panic) would not seem to apply to Mr. Ditmore’s letter, which advocated for President-elect Trump to take a particular military action. He was stating an opinion, not shouting false information that could cause a stampede. Likewise, the Supreme Court’s ruling — that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to speech that advocates the use of force that would likely incite imminent, lawless action — would also not seem to apply to the opinion stated in Ditmore’s letter. Even if the letter writer has Trump’s ear on the matter, launching a military action is within a president’s power, and to forbid discussion of such a possibility on these pages would inhibit our readers from weighing in about what our democratically elected leaders should or should not do in our name.

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11 thoughts on “Letter writer: The First Amendment has limits

  1. Publius Maximus

    Editors – Just “a particular military action” ?
    Advocating for bombing of Mecca – a city of millions of civilians, located in Saudi Arabia, where the US is not at war – would not simply be “a particular military action”. It would be a violation of Geneva Convention Protocol 1 Article 51 “Protection of the civilian population”. Based on the context of the original writers letter, the suggestion would also seem to be inspired by religious bigotry.

    Would you publish hate speech? Because that is what the letter in question treads into.

    • Tracy Rose

      The use of the phrase “a particular military action” is a way to refer to the opinion expressed without repeating it. One can guess at why Mr. Ditmore is offering his opinion on what he’d like Trump to do, and offer one’s opinion on it, as you’ve done. But since the original letter does not actually express hatred of a particular group of people, the conclusion that it’s “hate speech” seems a point on which reasonable people could disagree. And how useful can Xpress be in promoting democracy if we declare that discussions about possible government actions that our readers might disagree with are off-limits?

  2. The Real World

    I agree with the letter writer in his distaste of anyone advocating for the unprovoked bombing of anywhere.

    But, the Mtn X Editor’s response is well-reasoned and intelligent. We must keep channels of communication open, even if they are sometimes ugly, because it’s the only way to truly understand where people are coming from. You can’t persuade someone differently if you don’t know where they stand in the first place.

  3. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    You actually can yell “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theater. Perfectly legal. It all depends on the circumstances.

  4. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is currently committing genocide against the people of Yemen. So from a humanitarian standpoint, perhaps Mr Ditmore does have a valid point.

  5. John Penley

    Mountain Xpress to its credit publishes many controversial letters on a range of topics and I thank them for that. I am actually now waiting on one to be published about a sign listing rules at a West Asheville coffeeshop, West Asheville hipsters and gentrification and I am beginning to wonder if that one may have was too over the top for even Mountain Xpress to publish.

  6. Deplorable Infidel

    Snowflakes melting everywhere… just think of all the fools headed to DC to ‘protest’ the Inauguration… I asked one that is going what he was protesting and he could not formulate a cohesive answer, and he’s a retired Dr.!

      • Lulz

        LOL, nice. They don’t know what they’re protesting because they assume Trump and every republican is a fascist. Yet won’t admit that Hitler was an artist and Rohm was a homosexual. And that the Nazi party is actually derived from the German Workers Party or DAP. Sounds pretty left wing to me.

      • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

        The Borg queen bee emits her pheromones, and the worker bees buzz and swarm,…

        Excerpt from Going Froward with the Lightweight Brigade

        “What was it they heard?
        Theirs not to make reply,
        Theirs not to reason why,
        Theirs but to do & die
        “Forward! I’m with Herd!”

        (With apologies, of course, to Tennyson)

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