Anti-Muslim sign in Lonsdale is protected speech, bad business

Photo: Joe Reyes.

A Lonsdale, Minn., business owner has every right to put a sign in front of his business that advertises food and ice cream and adds “Muslims get out.”

It’s not against the law, thanks to the First Amendment.

“I’ve had enough and I’m standing up,” Dan Ruedinger, owner of Treats Family Restaurant, tells the Lonsdale News Review. “With all the bombs and shootings we’ve had, we’re supposed to welcome refugees here who want to kill us? This has nothing to do with race, it has to do with a religion of hatred that preaches violence.

“Some Muslims are good people and want a better life. They need to step up, take control and hold the others accountable.”

He later told TV stations he would’ve made it more clear he was referring to extremists, but he didn’t have the letters to spell “extremist.”

The paper says a woman stopped and started pulling the letters off the sign, prompting a call to the cops.

“It’s free speech,” a commenter declared on the Lonsdale Happenings Facebook page.

“No, it’s not. It’s hate,” countered another.

It’s both.

Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, although there are exceptions for face-to-face so-called “fighting words.”

Ground zero for this debate is the East Side of St. Paul, where some teenagers burned a cross at the home of a black family in 1990.

One young man was convicted under St. Paul’s Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance, which prohibits the display of a symbol which one knows or has reason to know “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.”

Having worked its way through Minnesota courts, the question ended up in the laps of nine U.S. Supreme Court justices, all of whom agreed that the St. Paul ordinance suppressed speech in violation of the First Amendment.

In its practical operation, moreover, the ordinance goes even beyond mere content discrimination, to actual viewpoint discrimination.

Displays containing some words — odious racial epithets, for example — would be prohibited to proponents of all views. But “fighting words” that do not themselves invoke race, color, creed, religion, or gender — aspersions upon a person’s mother, for example — would seemingly be usable ad libitum in the placards of those arguing in favor of racial, color, etc., tolerance and equality, but could not be used by those speakers’ opponents.

One could hold up a sign saying, for example, that all “anti-Catholic bigots” are misbegotten; but not that all “papists” are, for that would insult and provoke violence “on the basis of religion.”

St. Paul has no such authority to license one side of a debate to fight freestyle, while requiring the other to follow Marquis of Queensberry rules.

What we have here, it must be emphasized, is not a prohibition of fighting words that are directed at certain persons or groups (which would be facially valid if it met the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause); but rather, a prohibition of fighting words that contain (as the Minnesota Supreme Court repeatedly emphasized) messages of “bias motivated” hatred and in particular, as applied to this case, messages “based on virulent notions of racial supremacy.”

One must wholeheartedly agree with the Minnesota Supreme Court that “it is the responsibility, even the obligation, of diverse communities to confront such notions in whatever form they appear,” but the manner of that confrontation cannot consist of selective limitations upon speech.

St. Paul’s brief asserts that a general “fighting words” law would not meet the city’s needs because only a content-specific measure can communicate to minority groups that the “group hatred” aspect of such speech “is not condoned by the majority.”

The point of the First Amendment is that majority preferences must be expressed in some fashion other than silencing speech on the basis of its content.

While the speech in Lonsdale may be constitutionally protected, it’s a good way for a business to go broke.