American Jews owe a debt of gratitude to the First Amendment.
Arguably, no other amendment to the Constitution has kept us as safe in this country, nor has protected our rights, as much as the one that guarantees free speech.
That goes for all Americans, by the way. Yet those who have known discrimination, whose parents and grandparents fled lands where hatred and oppression were institutionalized, acutely understand how free speech has guaranteed our place in American society.
So, it was chilling to read that a bill criminalizing insults to police officers – criminalizing free speech –actually passed the Kentucky Senate this session and was sent to the House for consideration.
Senate Bill 211 was characterized by supporters as a protective measure for police following protests for racial justice in Louisville last summer. The bill failed to make it to the governor’s desk – this time – but the progress it made in Frankfort should be taken as a warning to everyone.
“Many of these laws that are phrased as laws against riots are actually attempts to take away the right to protest,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Truah, a rabbinic human rights organization that has written about free speech issues, in an interview with Community.
The bill stated that anyone who, in a public place, “accosts, insults, taunts, or challenges a law enforcement officer with offensive or derisive words, or by gestures or other physical contact, that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the perspective of a reasonable and prudent person” is guilty of second-degree disorderly conduct.
It did not itemize what words or phrases would constitute taunts or insults.
Words do have consequences. (Libel or slander someone; you can be sued.) But the First Amendment should be carefully protected at least as much as the Second. And yet gun owners have brandished their weapons in the chambers of state legislatures without any penalty at all.
The First Amendment protects all Americans: Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, men and women, gay and straight, Black and white.
Free speech has always been a Jewish value. The Torah is filled with passages about the Israelites complaining to Moses – loudly – about their plight in the desert.
Moses Ibn Ezra, the 11th century philosopher and poet, said, “When a person refrains from speech, the ideas die, the soul stops, and the senses deteriorate.”
In a 1927 free-speech case, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a Louisville native, wrote, “Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, [the United States’ founders] eschewed silence.”
Jacobs recounted a story of three rabbis in Roman times, discussing what she described as “the ultimate evil empire.” One rabbi chose to praise Rome; the second remained silent, but the third, Shimon bar Yochai, criticized Roman institutions as wicked.
His words reached the Roman governor, who sentenced bar Yochai to death, forcing him to flee to a cavern for 13 years. Yet he is celebrated in Jewish history for his courage.
“We have a lot of instances in Jewish texts, Jewish history, of standing up to authority, standing up for what’s right,” Jacobs said.
But what if that speech moves from discussion to insults?
“Free speech includes speech that’s not nice, that you don’t like, that is rude sometimes; a lot is included in free speech,” Jacobs said. “I’d love to have a world where nobody insults anybody, but that’s ultimately going to have major implications for free speech.”
Still, Judaism has much to say about how people speak to each other – what is called tochecha, or rebuke.
“There’s values around giving rebuke,” Jacobs said, “giving it, not holding it back, and also giving it in ways that people are able to receive and that will help them do better the next time.”
Not that people should be rude to each other, she said, “but what’s most important is to be fighting for the world we want to create, and standing up for what’s right.”
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)