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Free speech: Westboro church Supreme Court case tests First Amendment

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"Somebody is going to be unhappy," she says. "But the debate [surrounding the case] hopefully will foster understanding of why we have the First Amendment we do."

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The essence of free speech in America is not that you can say whatever you want. There is no constitutional right to libel someone, or to produce and distribute child pornography, or to use "fighting words" that are sure to provoke fisticuffs.

In the most quoted example, there is no constitutional right to falsely yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Government regulation of that speech is appropriate because of the predictable outcome of the panic.

On the other hand, the First Amendment's free speech clause is intended to be broadly permissive. Mere offense is not enough to trigger government censorship.

"The problem is, once you start prohibiting speech that is offensive there is no limit to how far you can extend the concept of offensiveness," says Richard Parker, professor emeritus of communication at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and editor of the 2003 book "Free Speech on Trial."

This is an issue that arises on the vast majority of American college campuses through the proliferation and enforcement of speech codes designed to ban offensive speech on campus.

Free speech advocates say it is exactly the wrong lesson for young college students training to become productive citizens.

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