By David Loomis
INDIANA – A month after the August 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., IUP’s social-equity office invited faculty members to propose public discussions about issues related to the deadly confrontation near the U.Va. campus. There was a local angle, too.
On Sept. 4, soon after the fall semester started, a racist Snapchat photo sent by an IUP student – the second in as many years — had disrupted the campus again.
I volunteered to lead a discussion group about the local angle. The university accepted my pitch. I also planned to add First Amendment elements of free speech, free press, free assembly and the rest to my talking points.
On a Tuesday evening in early November, the classroom assigned for my discussion overflowed. A dean scouted a larger room elsewhere in the building. The crowd migrated. I began.
I recited lecture notes from a media law and ethics course I taught. I described U.S. Supreme Court rulings that, beginning 100 years ago today, built the jurisprudence of free speech and free press in America.
The free-speech rulings were capped in 1969 in a case involving a Ku Klux Klan leader charged under Ohio law with exhorting a mob to violence against Jews, blacks and the government during a cross-burning. The mob took no action.
In its ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court established the “imminent lawless action” test for inflammatory speech: Government – including IUP, a public university supported by government funds — cannot punish such speech unless it poses a “true threat” – speech that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
IT’S BASIC FACT in First Amendment law. But some students in my audience weren’t buying it.