Commentary: Is Dissing the President Protected by the Constitution?

A movie ad’s harsh message is sparking debate about free speech. 

Posted: 03/01/2012 02:24 PM EST
U.S. Constitution, Politics, Barack Obama, National News


Do we actually have the right to be disrespectful? A controversy is brewing in suburban Washington, D.C. over an ad appearing in a busy metro station that has a pretty incendiary message for America's commander-in-chief. 


The ad for the movie, “Sick and Sicker” which bashes the Health Care Law, reads, "Barack Obama wants politicians and bureaucrats to control America’s entire medical system. Go to hell Barack."


At least one local leader is outraged and wants it taken down immediately. Congressman Jim Moran believes the message is profane and goes too far. In a letter to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, he criticized the decision to post the sign, writing, “Minimum standards of decency must be maintained through a vetting process. I assume such a process exists but surely this ad does not meet those standards. I call on you to remove this ad and any others like it from the system.”


But WMATA is standing by its decision to post the ad, saying in a statement: “WMATA advertising has been ruled by the courts as a public forum protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, and we may not decline ads based on their political content. WMATA does not endorse the advertising on our system, and ads do not reflect the position of the Authority."


Do critical, even insulting, statements against the president cross some sort of ethical line?


I seem to remember conservatives leveling those same charges against liberals who were at times critical of President Bush. His opponents often took pride in questioning his intellect, and making derogatory statements about his character. 


And who can forget rapper Kanye West’s jaw-dropping statement following Hurricane Katrina when he said, “George Bush does not like Black people.”? His words were deemed too harsh, and disrespectful by those who disagreed with his point of view.


Perhaps Rosa Parks probably felt the same hostility toward her when she defied the laws of the land, refusing to sit in the back of the bus in 1955.  


And what about the Black Panthers, whose often provocative stance and militant demands prompted many to label them “disrespectful” during the Black Power Era?


So the question is: What is disrespect and is it protected as Free Speech under the Constitution?


As African-Americans, who have historically been critical of the establishment and the leaders who represent it, we may want to use caution before backing efforts to silence an opinion, no matter how explosive that opinion may be.


So whether you’re a filmmaker saying “Go to Hell Barack” or Rev. Jesse Jackson saying, “I want to cut his [the president’s] nuts off,” many have crossed the line of good taste in criticizing the president of the United States. 


But African-Americans, in particular, must always remember that just because a statement is ill-mannered, doesn’t make it illegal.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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