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Free speech, public trust

This page takes a back seat to few when it comes to the protection of free speech. We welcome protest and dissent, and appreciate the speech even of those with whom we most fervently disagree. But it is disturbing to discover that some of those who trumpet their 1st Amendment rights fail to recognize that they have professional responsibilities to honor as well.

A few weeks ago, Judge Alex Kozinski, an admired federal appeals court jurist, was revealed to have taken full advantage of his constitutional right to indulge his taste in prurient and demeaning material, which he maintained on a publicly accessible Internet server. We defended his right to do so but urged him to recuse himself from a case testing the limits of obscenity. He did, and has properly been praised for it.

That said, it’s alarming that he would have taken on such a case given his appreciation for squalid pictures and videotapes, a predilection that raises questions not about his right to have the stuff -- have at it -- but about his ability to consider certain kinds of cases. He has resolved the immediate issue by bowing out of the obscenity trial, but he’s far from finished with this. Imagine, for instance, that a woman alleging workplace harassment or discrimination comes before Kozinski in the future. Would she have reason to question his ability to impartially consider her complaints, given that he apparently enjoys material that demeans women? Seems like a fair bet.

Kozinski isn’t the only local public official with speech issues. Recently, a Los Angeles police sergeant who also is a pastor proclaimed at a police officer’s funeral that homosexual acts were an abomination that would consign their practitioners to a “lake of fire.” A colleague in the church that day was offended and filed a complaint against the sergeant, who was subsequently transferred out of his community relations job. He then sued the L.A. Police Department, claiming he was retaliated against because of his religious views.

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Police Chief William J. Bratton has our sympathies. What do you do with a sergeant who has telegraphed his bias? If he arrests someone who’s gay, won’t that suspect have a sound basis for claiming unfairness? Whether or not the claim is sound, surely some jurors will find it convincing. Anyone who doubts that is invited to consider what O.J. Simpson’s lawyers made of the racially incendiary comments by former LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman.

These two cases are different in many respects -- one involves a brilliant judge, the other a bigoted cop -- but they both serve to remind us that although the Constitution protects speech, it does not shield all those who exercise it unwisely. There is a right to own porn and a right to hold deplorable views about gays. There is no right to undermine one’s position of public trust. Those who hold such posts should act accordingly.


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