Department of Human and Community Development Law behind Urbana television decision

By Esther Patt

In a May 2 letter, Olga Malkiman criticized The Daily Illini editorial in support of free speech, arguing that in the case of Beauharnais v. Illinois, the Supreme Court held that defamation of a group is not protected by the First Amendment.

Malkiman didn’t mention that the court overturned the Beauharnais decision 12 years later.

The 1952 decision in Beauharnais was a 5-4 ruling with a strong dissent written by Justice Douglas who saw the serious threat to freedom posed by Illinois’ 1917 statute criminalizing group libel.

In fact, many civil rights organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and the NAACP, also opposed group libel laws for fear they would be used against civil rights activists condemning segregationists. In his dissent, Justice Douglas wrote:

“Today a white man stands convicted for protesting in unseemly language against our decisions invalidating restrictive covenants. Tomorrow, a Negro will be hauled before a court for denouncing lynch laws in heated terms.”

In 1961, the Illinois Legislature repealed the group libel law and in 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Beauharnais decision. In New York Times v. Sullivan the Court ruled that the free speech exception for libel could not be applied to a group. For more than 40 years since, that legal precedent has stood as the law of the land.

Urbana City Council members took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. They would be violating that oath if they censored any cable TV program because of its content – no matter how vile.

There are many ways to legally protest hate speech like the program Malkiman wrote about. Censorship is not an available option and City Council members do not deserve criticism for their refusal to ignore the law.

Esther Patt

President, Champaign County ACLU