Limiting Free Speech (49): Residential Picketing

Residential picketing is a common form of protest. First you identify someone you don’t like – say an abortion doctor, a bank CEO or a pedophile. Then you find out where she lives, show up with a group of protesters at her home, and stage a long running protest just outside of it. Maybe your group shouts insults or curses every time she goes in or out. Maybe you stay at night as well.

The general rule is that you are allowed to do this. You’re in a public space and you can speak freely, even if your speech is insulting. However, this type of residential picketing can in some cases go so far as to violate the rights of the person who is picketed. Her freedom of movement, her right to privacy and her freedom of residence may suffer. She may feel intimidated, a feeling that forces her to stay at home or away from home. See may feel under siege and no longer safe in the privacy of her home. She may even believe that it’s necessary to move.

The protesters should accept some types of limitation of residential picketing rights when this picketing violates other rights. For example, if they are forced to respect a buffer zone around the residence, then they can still disseminate their message. Their alternatives are much easier and less costly than the alternatives for the person who is picketed. However, they know full well that their message will have a much stronger media impact if it produces some controversy, and harassing someone by keeping her a virtual hostage under siege in her own house is bound to be controversial. Hence they’re not likely to scale down the protest and respect a buffer zone.

The point is that free speech rights are not automatically prior or superior to other rights, especially not if those speech rights are used in such a way that they must violate other rights and that alternative uses are rejected. There’s no hierarchy among human rights and all rights are equivalent. That means that when rights are in conflict with each other, the decision to favor one or the other must take into account the respective costs to one or the other. In this case, the cost to privacy, freedom of movement etc. of allowing free speech is clearly higher than the cost we impose on free speech when we want to protect privacy, movement and residence rights. The protesters can still express themselves outside a buffer zone and in myriad other ways. The person who is picketed can also move to another house, but that is much more costly and possibly futile (given a certain level of persistence among the protesters). The right to free speech does not include a right to maximum impact speech.

The US case law in question is Frisby v Schultz. Something on the related topic of the duty to listen. More posts in this series are here.

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