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Get Hate-Mail Law Off Books

October 1, 2001 

Now, when America's freedoms are under attack, is a good time for judges to uphold one of those freedoms, and for citizens to support their decision, even though doing so is painful and difficult.

In an important free speech ruling, Florida's 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach upheld a Broward County judge's order that a state law banning "hate mail" is unconstitutional.

Both rulings may be very unpopular with people who are fed up with hateful things being said about their country. But freedom of speech has to cover viewpoints that others find disagreeable.

The case involves a 75-year-old Oakland Park man who wrote anonymous, often incoherent letters railing against Jews to six Broward County commissioners who were Jewish or married to Jews. However offensive, what he wrote in August 1999 should not be treated as a crime because he made no threats.

The man was the first person ever arrested under a bad 56-year-old Florida statute (836.11) that bans anyone from printing, publishing or distributing anonymous written material exposing a person or religious group to hatred, contempt, ridicule or condemnation. He faced up to 90 days in county jail, a $500 fine or both. Broward County Court Judge Gary Cowart blocked the prosecution, overturning the law for several sound reasons:

It is so broad, he said, that it could be used to prosecute people for drawing political cartoons, writing satirical parodies or sending unsigned and unpublished letters to the editor of newspapers.

It is so vague that people of ordinary intelligence might not know that what they wrote was illegal.

It is so narrow that it only bans hate mail sent to religious groups but not to non-religious groups.

And it is so unreasonable that it bans unsigned hate mail but not signed letters.

Now that an appeals court has upheld Judge Cowart's ruling as "well-reasoned," lawmakers should remove the statute from the lawbooks. Prejudiced, hate-filled opinions against any group are abhorrent, but the right to hold and express them must be defended.

The appeals court made some key points: Government should not favor certain viewpoints and censor disfavored ones. Vague and arbitrary laws give police, judges and jurors too much discretion in deciding whether a crime has been committed, and fail to inform people whether they are committing a crime.

The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan expressed it well: "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."

by South Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board, Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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