Hayes takes action after receiving complaint from Catholic League
By Stuart R. Wahlin
Bill Donohue, president of the conservative New York-based Catholic League and outspoken critic of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), issued a letter to City Legal Director Patrick Hayes Sept. 24, 2009, demanding that action be taken to remove a cartoon displayed in a window of Wayne Webster’s building at 1400 Broadway, which houses an abortion clinic.
The display in question depicted Jesus showing his middle finger with a caption stating, “Even Jesus hates you.” The picture was brought to Donohue’s attention by offended protesters.
Webster, however, alleged the image was first used locally in a posting on www.Craigslist.com directed at him.
The next day, in a follow-up letter to Donohue, which was subsequently published on www.Catholic.org, Hayes noted his department had similarly received complaints regarding graphic photographs of dismembered fetuses routinely displayed by protesters.
“Of course, our offices have declined to prosecute the protestors based on their First Amendment right to free expression, even though these depictions have often been upsetting to children and others with weak constitutions,” Hayes wrote. “The City of Rockford believes we have protected the constitutional rights of all parties to the abortion dispute.”
Hayes refuted Donohue’s suggestion that the cartoon in Webster’s window was illegal on the basis of the city’s ordinance regarding “offensive uses of property,” which states it is illegal to “disturb or destroy the peace of the neighborhood in which such building or premises are situated, or be dangerous or detrimental to health.”
“I am unaware as to the number of past displays of the poster or its current display, but I do know that I have not received a single complaint regarding its display from a resident of the neighborhood, or even a resident of the city of Rockford or state of Illinois,” Hayes responded to Donohue. “I have also not received any reports of the physical or mental health of anyone adversely affected by this display.”
Hayes added: “We are aware that the Catholic League has been a worthy champion of the First Amendment rights of Catholics and all other Christians to practice their religion without fear of recrimination. However, as you are undoubtedly well aware, Americans also possess the right to not practice a religion as well. We also have the right to create satire of others’ religious beliefs. I think we can agree that this practice is generally in bad taste, and oft times can be quite vulgar, but the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled in the Flynt case and others that satire is a protected form of expression.”
Nevertheless, according to Webster, Hayes visited the property to ask that he take down the sign. Webster complied, which Hayes reported to Donohue in his letter.
Although appreciative of Hayes’ intervention, Donohue took exception to the mention of protesters displaying signs with photos of dismembered fetuses.
“Your analogy between the poster in question and pictures of aborted children fails,” he asserted. “The pictures are a representation of real life—they are not deliberately doctored. Nor are they a bigoted portrayal.
“Moreover, anti-war protesters regularly show pictures of combatants and innocents killed in war, yet no one seeks to compare them to hate speech,” Donohue added. “By contrast, depicting Jesus Christ telling Christians ‘F— You’ is not only contrived, it is an in-your-face obscene provocation, coming dangerously close to ‘fighting words.’”
Donohue indicated “fighting words” are not protected as free speech.
From the Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2010 issue
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