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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Gruesomeness and the First Amendment

As one who is interested in both women's reproductive rights and the First Amendment, I find issues at their intersection of those protections to be inherently fascinating. One such set of issues surrounds abortion protests, and a particularly thorny question under that broad rubric involves the permissibility of restrictions on the display of gruesome or graphic images of dismembered fetuses. Usually, such arguably content-basedrestrictions, which appear to raise First Amendment concerns, are justified as protecting children from the disturbing imagery.

Now, it appears the formidable Eugene Volokh has filed a cert petition in a case involving just such a restriction, in the form of a state-court injunction against "displaying large posters or similar displays depicting gruesome images of mutilated fetuses or dead bodies in a manner reasonably likely to be viewed by children under 12 years of age." The permissibility of restrictions like this has been the subject of a circuit split, and the Supreme Court is set to discuss the petition at its May 30 conference.

A few random thoughts follow the jump:

First, there are many problems with this sort of restriction that make me uncomfortable, not the least of which are the vagueness of the term "gruesome" and the problem of limiting what can be displayed in public because of concerns about the possibility that young (perhaps only very young) children might be disturbed by it.

At the same time, though, I do think there is a category of speech (really, imagery) that is so visually--one might even say viscerally--disturbing that there may well be a compelling interest in protecting children from it. Moreover, I say "compelling," because I'm assuming this is a content-based restriction requiring strict scrutiny, but I'm not completely sure that's true. This might be viewed as a content-neutral restriction on the manner of speech, justified by concerns about the physical impact ("secondary effects"?) of that speech on others -- not because of the message conveyed but because of the way it is conveyed. Of course, the problem is that it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish the medium from the message here.

Yet, at the same time, these sorts of arguments run smack up against Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass'n, where the Supreme Court made it clear, once again, that the only horror we can't expose our children to is sex. Only sexual content is so forbidden, so disturbing, and so inappropriate for children that it can be off-limits to them when it is constitutionally protected to adults. To be clear, I don't think sexually explicit content is usually appropriate for minors, and I also don't favor lots of new limits on speech in the name of protecting minors. But I really don't get the rationale, other than tradition, for drawing this sort of line between sex and violence or other content that is likely equally upsetting to children. 

Finally, and a little more tangentially, I think the extent to which debates about abortion are often driven by a sort of "graphic-ness," in the sense of a highly visual orientation, both in the imagery but also in the language of Supreme Court cases, is peculiar and fascinating, as I have briefly explored elsewhere.

Posted by Jessie Hill on May 23, 2013 at 04:24 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment | Permalink


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Interestingly, the petition does not cite Butler v. Michigan or mention the principle that government cannot reduce discourse directed at a mass audience to the level appropriate for a child. Even if gruesomeness could, in some situations, be an appropriate basis for regulating some expression, there is an independent problem of imposing a child-protective restriction on speech that is going to be heard by a mixed, largely adult audience.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 24, 2013 7:31:45 AM

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