Sunday, May 18, 2008

Does the First Amendmant Protect Speech on a City Bus?

According to the website National Aliance Against Religioius Discrimination:

A woman was forced off a Seattle bus for having a private conversation about God. Michelle Shocks was traveling on a city bus April 2 when a man embarked and, thankful to be out of the rain, said, "Praise the Lord." Shocks and the man reportedly began to discuss their churches, their Christian faith, and other religions.

The driver called Shocks to the front of the bus and told her she could not talk about religion because other passengers might be offended, the Rutherford Institute said. The rights group is considering a lawsuit on Shocks' behalf.

Shocks moved closer to the man so she could speak more quietly, but was again called to the front of the bus and ordered to get off. Shocks, who is five months pregnant, reportedly had to walk along a highway during rush hour in the rain for about a mile.

(Current News Summary. 4/16/99.)

The First Amendment certainly protects most kinds of speech. There are exceptions when that speech would call for a violent overthrow of the government or might cause physical harm (the "Yelling 'FIRE' in a crowded theater" argument). Sometimes courts have allowed some forms of censorship when speech might be too offensive to the public at large, although they also allow speech that is offensive, such as flag burning (which courts consider a form of speech, which is therefor protected by the First Amendment).

It seems clear that to ban discussions of religion in a public arena or a city bus, one would have to consider religion an offensive topic, one that should be reserved for a more private venue. Or one would have to think that the amendment banning the government from establishing a religion would extend to private citizens discussing religion on a tax-supported vehicle. Neither of those idea is logical or supported by our Constitution. I believe the attitude that leads to such incidents is mostly due to news accounts of court actions that "over-apply" the First Amendment. Even if lower court actions are later overturned, the impression remains in the mind of many.

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