8.3 The Risks of Excess

Part: 
Two
Chapter: 
8

In pointing out the citizen's undoubted right to protest written, printed, or photographic material that he or she finds harmful, objectionable, immoral, or offensive, we are not so naive as to ignore that this right to protest may often be carried to excess. Citizens who protest, or boycott, or picket, or distribute leaflets, or march, or demonstrate are unquestionably exercising their First Amendment rights. But just like the First Amendment rights of some of those who deal in sexually explicit materials, these rights may be exercised harmfully or unwisely.

Thus, we have no doubt that a citizen has the right to refuse to shop at a store that sells the National Review or The New Republic because the citizen disagrees with the political point of view of one of those magazines. And we have no doubt that a citizen who urges his friends and others to do the same is still well within what the First Amendment does and ought to protect. But we also have no doubt that the citizen who exercises his First Amendment rights in this manner could be criticized by most people, and most of us would strongly support that criticism. Apart from the question of governmental interference, there are positive values associated with the free flow of ideas and information, and society is the loser when that process is unduly stifled. Just as with the free speech rights of those who trade in sexually explicit materials, the free speech rights to protest objectionable material may be exercised in a lawful but societally harmful manner.

Thus we have little doubt that in exercising their First Amendment rights to protest material that they find objectionable, some people will protest material that quite simply ought to be encouraged freely to circulate in this society. We also have little doubt that protest activity may very well inhibit this process of circulation. If large numbers of people refused to patronize bookstores that sold Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry because it dealt with sexual immorality by a minister, or if people picketed the residences of booksellers who sold James Joyce's Ulysses because of its sexual themes and language, this society would, quite simply, be the worse for it. These examples are of course extreme, but the fears that many arguably valuable but sexually frank works of fiction and non-fiction will be stifled not by governmental action but by social pressure is real.

We have no solutions to this dilemma. We believe it fully appropriate for citizens to protest against material they find objectionable, and we know that at times this protest activity will go too far, to the detriment of all of us. This society is a free society not only because of the First Amendment, but also because of generally held attitudes of tolerance. We encourage people to object to the objectionable, but we think it even more important that they tolerate the tolerable.