Attorney: Hate speech often protected by law

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Viral videos showing people yelling inflammatory statements at groups of people are inciting anger online, but an attorney says some of that speech is not illegal.

One of the videos took place a couple of weeks back at Rosa Parks Circle. A man in the video was yelling at a group of people saying, “kill you all, kill the Muslims.”

Another video shows an incident that took place on March 27 at the Shell gas station on Marshall Street in Coldwater. A man claiming to be a Marine yelled at a group of Arab teenagers saying, “I’m a U.S. Marine. I’ve been in Fallujah. I’ve killed your mother******* kind.”

Mike Walsh, an attorney in Muskegon, said what is considered unacceptable speech is often times protected by the First Amendment.

“The First Amendment covers ideas. It says we are entitled to our ideas. We communicate our ideas through words and we have words that can come out of our mouths that are socially acceptable or socially unacceptable. The First Amendment covers both of those,” he said.

That means hate speech is often protected under the law.

“In America, we are free to hate anybody we want to hate, and we are free to talk about our hatred of those groups or individuals. The problem comes in when that is communicated to a group or an individual and there is an immediate threat to the breach of the peace,” said Walsh.

In the Coldwater case, Walsh believes the unidentified man’s statements would likely be considered hate speech, and hate speech is protected by the law.

“When you say ‘your kind,’ you are isolating a group of people, several individuals at least, and that could be construed as hate speech. Hate speech as I said is protected speech. The next question is if he said ‘I’ve killed your kind,’ that suggests to me that the person is in the military and he may be blowing off steam, maybe mentally ill, I don’t know anything about that, but he so far would be protected,” said Walsh.

When there is a threat to the breach of peace and the comments are directed to a group or individual, the speech is considered “fighting words,” and that speech is not protected by the law.

“Fighting words are not protected by the First Amendment because of that chance that something violent may happen,” he said.

The teenagers from the Coldwater video said they don’t want the man to face any charges, however, Walsh said it is important to watch what we say in any scenario.

“Words have power. Words can heal. Words can hurt. They all have legal implications so I would agree that in the perfect world, we should think before we speak and these days when we are all publishers, we can all sit down on Facebook, we can all put our thoughts out to millions of people. We really need to think before we push that button,” Walsh said.

Authorities are reviewing the Coldwater video and seeking more information to determine if what the man said was a crime.

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