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Free Speech Tested When Emotions Run High

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights appended to the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans' freedom of speech. But there's a fine line between unfettered speech and dangerous speech that threatens the common good.

In 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while freedom of speech is revered, we may not shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater and trigger a dangerous stampede for the exits. Nor, according to a later ruling, may we incite a crowd to possible acts of violence by burning a cross on a person's lawn. Yet the hate-spewing speech of the Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers in extremely volatile settings has so far been permitted as an exercise of free speech, loathsome as it is to some.

Reverend Phelps is a self-styled Baptist preacher -- self-styled because no Baptist denomination recognizes him. He and his followers despise gay people. God hates homosexuals, they scream -- most recently and provocatively at the funerals of U.S. service men and women killed in the Middle East.

Whether or not the dead soldiers are thought to be gay, the Phelps brigade attributes the deaths to God's wrath against Americans for tolerating homosexuality.

And into this volatile mix have roared muscular motorcyclists, calling themselves the "Patriot Guard Riders." They menace Reverend Phelps and his crowd -- escalating already-raw emotions at what were supposed to be solemn farewells to the dead.

Some states have passed laws to keep these coarse confrontations a respectful distance from the mourners. But none has challenged the treasured right of citizens, in most circumstances, to speak their minds openly, loudly, and -- yes -- even hatefully.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program VOA News Now. For other "peculiarly American Stories" visit our Only in America Homepage.