Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


broussard

Chris Broussard. (SCREENSHOT: ESPN)

Fighting Words

• April 29, 2013 • 3:45 PM

Chris Broussard. (SCREENSHOT: ESPN)

ESPN’s Chris Broussard’s attack on homosexuality, sparked by the first coming out of a major American athlete, should not be condoned as free speech.

Let me preface this by noting that I know next to nothing about sports, in America or elsewhere. I blindly cheer for my teams back home—the Chicago Bears, the Chicago Bulls, and the Chicago White Sox—with the same intensity I bring to a lot of other aspects of my life. (I’ve been accused of jingoism on more than one occasion.) But as a gay atheist who grew up in a not-immediately-tolerant environment (atheism wasn’t seen as a lack of belief, but an absence of morals), I do know something about intolerance.

This morning, I shrugged off the news that Jason Collins, who has already spent 12 years on the court playing for half a dozen teams, came out as homosexual in this week’s Sports Illustrated cover story. (Read a passage from Collins’ announcement in this great background post by our Ryan O’Hanlon.) That’s good; that’s progress. Let’s move on.

“There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.”

But then Outside the Lines booked ESPN’s Chris Broussard for a special hour-long episode to discuss the coming out. The conversation between Broussard, who has written about his “beliefs” before, and openly gay correspondent LZ Granderson quickly devolved. “I don’t believe you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle,” Broussard said. “If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says … that’s a sin. And if you’re openly living in unrepentant sin … I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ.” So much for progress. (For what it’s worth—very little, if anything—Broussard has been writing about sports for his entire life. He hasn’t had much professional exposure to The Gays.)

And then I saw this tweet from Brandon Sneed: “Regarding Chris Broussard: Bear in mind that deriding him for his belief is the same as him deriding Collins/Granderson/etc for theirs.” To his credit, Sneed walked that argument back a little, but not before I could send out a modified tweet prefaced with, simply, “No, it’s not.” The only way to respond, really, when you’re limited to 140 characters.

The ensuing conversation, which I had sort of been hoping to avoid entirely (because, seriously: no fun), also devolved. There was a bit of choice back and forth between Sneed and myself—and between Sneed and others—but it seems his takeaway was this: “Broussard has the right to say what he wants. (Don’t agree with what he said.) Collins/etc should have right to live as they live.”

I take issue with that. It’s the blanket free speech argument. (And I know that argument well. As a wildly conservative—this is back in the jingo days before I came out, when I was using the near-lethal combination of pen and temper to shield my own personal insecurities—high school student, I wrote a number of columns for the student newspaper and regional publications in the Chicago area on this subject.) But the blanket free speech argument is a weak one. Any journalist knows that. After a basic media ethics class (the easy way) or a handful of frightening emails from a subject (the hard way), you’ll know a thing or two about libel and slander. There’s also, of course, obscenity, child pornography, incitement, false or misleading advertising (all commercial speech is subject to limited protection), and speech owned by others (this is where trademarks and copyright issues come into play). Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has tightened the definition of free speech over and over again.

As a 15-year-old, that made me livid. Now, as a 25-year-old, I appreciate those restrictions, because, frankly, I don’t want to listen to your bullshit. In fact, I don’t think the existing restrictions go far enough.

In the 1942 9-0 decision of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court outlined the fighting words doctrine, which pulls protection of speech—written or spoken—meant to incite hatred or violence.

There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting words” those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

The fighting words doctrine has been tested numerous times over the last 70 years, losing power with each new decision. Flag-burning was allowed beginning in 1969 (Street v. New York). “Fuck the draft,” because it didn’t include any “personally abusive epithets” was given the all-clear in 1971 (Cohen v. California). In two cases, the Court overturned the convictions of those who had cursed at police officers (Lewis v. New Orleans and Gooding v. Wilson). And then, in 2011’s Snyder v. Phelps, despite the dissent of the conservative, Bush-appointed judge Samuel Alito, the Court protected the protests of Westboro Baptist Church members, largely because they were directed at a general public and held in public locations.

Let’s revisit that case again.

Broussard’s words might not be considered fighting words when held against the history of the doctrine. But times change, and that’s why new cases come forward to challenge old laws. The problem with the doctrine as it currently stands is that it implies incitement of violence or hatred by the receiver against the giver. It doesn’t consider violence or hatred by the receiver against the receiver, violence or hatred against the self.

After a couple of years in which we’ve seen dozens of studies—LGBT youth who are bullied are far more likely to consider and commit suicide; acceptance from family and friends minimizes risk—and a similar number of deaths, Broussard’s words, and the arguments by otherwise reasonable people that they should be protected by free speech, are no longer acceptable. They’re fighting words.

Nicholas Jackson
Nicholas Jackson is the digital director of Pacific Standard. The former digital editorial director at Outside, he has also worked for The Atlantic, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Texas Monthly, Slate, and other publications, both online and in print. Reach him at njackson@psmag.com. Follow him on Twitter @nbj914.

More From Nicholas Jackson

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.