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Downtown ‘fighting words’ are spelled out

The Salt Lake Tribune, USA
Feb. 7, 2004
Heather May • Monday February 9, 2004

Calling a woman a “harlot” after she exits the Salt Lake LDS Temple — especially in the presence of her husband or children — may not be constitutionally protected, says Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.

Such confrontations happen in Utah’s capital at least twice a year during the LDS Church’s world conferences. That prompted the city to write free-speech educational guidelines, which were released Friday, to help residents understand what is constitutionally allowed and the city’s role in regulating speech.

The guidelines precede a revision of the city’s speech ordinances, which must be approved by the City Council. Those changes will be released within the month. The city received input from the LDS Church and the American Civil Liberties Union for the proposed ordinance changes, said City Attorney Ed Rutan.

The three-page explanation of free-speech doctrine does not specifically address what behavior is protected on public sidewalks during LDS conference or other events.

But it does provide examples of constitutional and unconstitutional speech, as deemed by various courts. For instance, a Wisconsin court ruled that protesters who formed a semicircle near a woman and shouted for six minutes that she was “a whore, harlot and Jezebel” were using “fighting words,” which are not constitutionally protected.

Fighting words are defined as personal insults directed at individuals that are likely to create a violent reaction and play no role in the expression of ideas.

“If it [calling a woman a harlot] is directed to a specific person and especially in the presence of children or somebody’s new husband, anybody could expect that that would elicit a violent response and that very likely would be considered fighting words under established constitutional doctrine,” said Anderson, a former civil-rights attorney.

But not all offensive utterances or actions are considered “fighting words.” It depends on the circumstances.

Indeed, at October’s LDS conference, Salt Lake City police arrested two men who, offended by preachers’ display of LDS garments, tried to take away the clothing, which Mormons consider sacred.

Dani Eyer, ACLU executive director, had not seen a copy of the guidelines Friday. She said the organization generally supports educating the public about free speech. And she noted that the fighting words doctrine is difficult to interpret.

“There needs to be an immediate threat of physical harm,” she said. “We’re as sympathetic as anyone to the problem. On the other hand, there’s a real fine line between what are considered fighting words and what is constitutionally protected expression.”

Ron McRae — director of the Street Preachers Fellowship based in Pennsylvania whose members preach around the Salt Lake Temple — agreed that if someone walked up to a woman on the sidewalk and called her a “whore,” it would cross the line. But when preachers deliver a sermon about spiritual whoredom or harlotry, their speech is protected.

“What we’re doing out there is exercising a religious liberty,” he said. “In a sermon, whether it’s a Mormon sermon or a street preacher’s sermon . . . to say the word ‘whore’ or ‘harlot’ . . . those are not fighting words.”

The mayor hopes the guidelines will encourage preachers to act more “courteously.” And he suggested to people who are offended by the preachers to ignore them.

“This is what comes with a free society,” Anderson said. “The First Amendment really isn’t there to protect speech or activities that are pleasing to everybody.”

The guidelines are available at

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