From The Guardian UK: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/may/06/texas-shootings-free-speech-constitution
Critics say Pamela Geller’s event was provocative and arguably crossed the line into hate speech – but protections afforded by the first amendment are unique
Ed Pilkington in New York
Wednesday 6 May 2015
The fatal shootings in Garland, Texas, of two extremist gunmen as they attacked an anti-Islamist meeting was a vivid reminder of the virtually unique protections afforded by the US constitution to free speech, no matter how hate-filled or provocative, according to prominent first amendment experts.
In many countries across Europe and around the world, Pamela Geller and the American Freedom Defense Initiative, who organized the event in Garland, might have fallen foul of hate speech laws such as the UK’s 1986 public order act or article 266(b) of Denmark’s criminal code.
Coming just two months after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, commenters the world over have said Geller’s decision to stage the Texas cartoon competition – participants were invited to draw the prophet Muhammad, with a top prize of $10,000 – was clearly provocative and arguably crossed the line into hate speech.
Geller herself has a long history of inflammatory acts toward the Muslim community.
But there was never any question of the Muhammad event being barred, leading US constitutional scholars say, for the simple reason that the first amendment offers an almost watertight protection of public speech.
Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe said the Garland attack illustrated a major difference in free speech law between the US and almost every other country in the world.
“Most other nations recognize a category of hateful speech that is likely to trigger outrage and even retaliation, but the first amendment has for many decades been interpreted to allow speakers like Pamela Geller to spread their disturbing messages to the world at large,” Tribe said.
While some aspects of US constitutional law are ambiguous or blurry, the first amendment is crystal clear on this issue. The government is prohibited from punishing hate speech or language that might incite lawlessness unless the words are specifically and deliberately directed at a particular target and likely imminently to trigger violence.
Given all the legal hurdles that a prosecution would have to clear in order to be successful, actions to block public events or censor hate-filled publications are virtually extinct in modern America. Legal scholars such as Tribe date the ascendancy of the first amendment in this area to the 1969 case of Brandenburg v Ohio in which a Ku Klux Klan leader was convicted under Ohio law for holding a rally with participants in full Klan regalia parading around burning crosses and vowing “revengeance” against the N-word and Jews.