First Amendment is not a ‘boutique of the banal’

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals offered this advice last week to those offended by the anti-Hispanic e-mail rants of a community college professor in Arizona.

“Those offended by (the professor’s) ideas should engage him in debate or hit the ‘delete’ button when they receive his e-mails,” the court said. “They may not invoke the power of government to shut him up.”

That’s sound advice to everyone in this country at a time when so many people seem eager to silence those whose views they find different, obnoxious or insulting.

That certainly was the case for the messages sent by Maricopa County Community College Professor Walter Kehowski. In a series of e-mails sent to every employee in the college district, he talked of the superiority of European culture and denigrated Hispanic celebrations. He also linked to his colleged-hoste website, where he declared, “The only immigration reform imperative is preservation of White majority.”

A group of Hispanic employees sued the college district and its top administrators, saying Kehowski’s e-mails created a hostile work environment. They argued the college should have acted to muzzle him by restricting his access to the college e-mail and web server.

We can’t defend Kehowski’s sentiments, only his right to express them. That’s just what the circuit court did.

It noted that his e-mails sparked a heated debate on campus and in local newspapers, exactly the sort of debate the First Amendment envisions.

“Without the right to stand against society’s most strongly held convictions, the marketplace of ideas would decline into a boutique of the banal, as the urge to censor is greatest where debate is most disquieting and orthodoxy the most entrenched,” the court said.

This ruling is a strong statement in support of free speech and academic freedom. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, whose record on the First Amendment is murky, could ease a lot of anxiety about her views by endorsing the 9th Circuit’s vision of free-speech protections during her confirmation hearings.


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