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First Amendment and free speech: an oft-debated slippery slope

Is it acceptable to boo doing the national anthem because you harbor certain political reservations and want to publicize them? Is it OK in North Carolina or anywhere else in the country to call the president or other public official an idiot? Will law enforcement authorities come knocking on your door if burn an American flag? Lambast Middle East policy? Object to your neighbors because of the language they speak or their country of origin?

Such questions can be posed virtually forever in the United States, given the very essence of our body politic and the deep reverence that is fundamentally given to free speech.

As virtually every American of a certain age knows, though, free speech is not an absolute right in any state of the union, notwithstanding the commonly held view of some that it is an unqualified prerogative.

In truth, the parameters of free speech are always being debated and tested in the United States, with First Amendment freedom of expression issues ranging from so-called “hate speech” and pornography to political activities and group affiliations.

A recent and provocative case featuring speech rights involves a young rap artist who is presently incarcerated and faces a potential life-long prison term for violating a California statute rendering it unlawful to benefit from gang-related activities.

Authorities say the San-Diego based rapper grew in prominence following a series of shootings in his city. They point to lyrics in his music that they say show a connection with gang activity.

The rapper disputes that, saying that he is simply an artist “painting a picture of urban street life.” He denies any gang involvement and, in fact, has no prior criminal record. He says that he is now frightened to express his feelings, given authorities’ attempts to silence and punish him.

One media legal commentator says that authorities are going to have to come up with more than questionable lyrics to make the criminal charges against the rapper stick.

The problem, the analyst says, is that they are “going to run straight head-on into the First Amendment.”

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