But what happens if I just think about a noose?

by Linda Ruth Carter

It was early in the morning when I saw this story. It had me rubbing my eyes in disbelief, questioning whether or not I was still asleep. According to the New York newspaper, North Country Gazette:

New York State Senate Majority passed legislation Monday, sponsored by Senator Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), to make it a felony to etch, paint, draw or otherwise place or display a noose on public or private property.”

I went and got my coffee and read it again. Unbelievable as it is, this is not a joke.

There are so many things wrong with this nascent legislation, I hardly know where to begin. From the rest of the article I gather that there have been a rash of incidents involving anonymous nooses being sent to, among other people, a black high school teacher in Brooklyn.

Although I feel awful about having to make this clear, I feel compelled to state that I recognize hanging nooses in people’s yards is akin to marching up and down the sidewalk in front of their house wearing white sheets with matching pointy hats. The intention is to harass and intimidate. It is meant to frighten people into disappearing either physically or verbally. It is threatening people to be invisible, silent. And that, my free-speech-loving friends is wrong.

But, let’s take a close look at the New York State Senate’s misguided attempt to address the issue. First of all, this is proposing that it be a FELONY to “etch, paint, draw or otherwise place or display a noose.” That is enough to short circuit my sense of understanding of the First Amendment. You cannot restrict the use of any particular image or you kill all possibility of creating art. Ever. But wait, that’s not all. This is not only in public but on private property. People had better start sift through their Halloween decorations mighty carefully this year or they could end up with a class E felony on their list of credentials for that impressively scary display in your foyer.

There’s no end to the list of potentially offensive images besides a noose, and none of them should be outlawed. To do so is directly and unambiguously abridging the freedom of speech. I thought it was established a long time ago that offensive speech (including images) was included in that.

I’m willing to be generous to the thinking behind this effort and assume the impulse had to do with wanting people to be decent to each other. But this is not going to accomplish that or anything good. It merely creates another horror all of its own.