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Law vs. Ethics

by Maria Minsker | Cornell University

F Posted in: College, Voices P Posted on: December 7, 2011
Maria Minsker Maria Minsker

Last week, Byron Thomas, a black freshman at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, won the fight to display a Confederate flag in his dorm room — even though University authorities asked him to remove it. University officials urged Thomas to remove the flag because they felt it promoted bigotry on campus, but Thomas argued that his right to display the flag in his room is protected by the freedom of speech guaranteed to him by the First Amendment. Thomas presents a valid argument, but in such situations, it would seem pertinent to not only act in the realms of what is legal, but also consider what is appropriate.

In a YouTube video, Thomas argued that he did not believe that the flag represented bigotry or racism, but rather was a symbol of Southern pride. Thomas also explained that he believed the meaning of the flag had been hijacked, and he was attempting to restore it. To many, the Confederate flag represents a time when the nation was divided and plagued with hatred, slavery, and inequality. Since the Civil War, the flag has been an emblem of several racist organizations, including, for some time, the Ku Klux Klan. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 500 extremist groups use the Southern Cross emblem as one of their symbols. For these reasons, it isn’t difficult to understand why university officials and Thomas’s classmates would be offended by his display.

But in this country, citizens have the right to freedom of speech, and it appears that Thomas’s desire to display the flag is protected by this right. The Founding Fathers created the First Amendment primarily to ensure that Americans would have the ability to stand up to a tyrannical government or to a government that was acting unjustly, but the right’s application has since been expanded. Still, no freedom is absolute, and restrictions apply. There’s the famous ‘you can’t scream fire in a crowded movie theater’ example (doing this poses a clear and present danger). You also can’t make threats that use “fighting words,” such as threatening to kill someone. As long as Thomas isn’t violating these restrictions (which would be up to judges to decide if this went to court), he certainly has the right to display the Confederate flag. But even though he has the right to do it, that doesn’t mean he should.

This situation is reminiscent of the National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie case in 1977. The leader of the NSPA, Frank Collin, announced the party’s intention to march through Skokie, Ill., where a large population of Holocaust survivors and Jews resided. Originally, the NSPA had planned a political rally in Marquette Park in Chicago near its headquarters, but the plan changed when Chicago authorities asked the NSPA to post a public-safety insurance bond and eventually banned all political demonstrations in Marquette Park.

The NSPA then decided to march in Skokie, but officials said the event would be politically provocative and socially disruptive and refused to let the group march. A federal district judge ruled that Skokie’s ordinances were unconstitutional, saying, “The ability of American society to tolerate the advocacy even of the hateful doctrines espoused by the plaintiffs without abandoning its commitment to freedom of speech and assembly is perhaps the best protection we have against the establishment of any Nazi-type regime in this country.” This decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals, and when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, the decision of the Court of Appeals held. So was it legal for the NSPA to plan a Nazi march through a village populated with Holocaust survivors? Yes. Was it appropriate and ethical? Not really.

There is more to a society than just laws and rights — ethics play an important role as well. There is no law that states that a person has to hold a door for someone carrying heavy bags, but people do it anyway. There is no law that mandates people to say please and thank you, yet not doing so is still considered rude. If Thomas understands and empathizes with the fact that his action is offending a significant number of people — including, he admits, his own parents, who lived through the Civil Rights movement — then perhaps he will reconsider and take the flag down. But Thomas’s desire to protect his freedom of speech is commendable, and if he is convinced that this is the most effective way to defend it, then he has the legal right to do so. Whether or not he wants to consider ethics is his decision to make.

Maria Minsker Maria Minsker Maria Minsker is a junior English and communication double major at Cornell University. She is an aspiring journalist who loves to travel, try foreign cuisines and watch reruns of old sitcoms.

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