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Satire: Stranger Than Fact By: Judith Weizner
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, February 23, 2004

While many people were outraged when a Manistee, Michigan, housewife was jailed for using an ethnic slur in a private conversation with her mother, very few are aware of a similar case unfolding in New York in which a small group of friends, who refer to themselves as "the Four Fressers" due to their habit of eating breakfast together in a neighborhood coffee shop, have been arrested for engaging in public hate speech.

The Manistee conviction was ultimately overturned, but it is far from certain that the Fressers will be as fortunate. They are charged with having discussed the Rush Limbaugh show during one of their get-togethers at Ess-a-Bagel, an upper-west-side coffee shop run by Spencer and Carlton Theodorakis.

The Fressers are the first to be charged under the recently enacted Big Apple Hate Speech Code (BAHSC) which requires all persons to avoid any topic of conversation in public places that might offend anyone within a 5280-foot radius.

Sam Spieker, Vic Parlatore, Alex Plauderer and Bob Bavard were at their usual table at Ess-a-Bagel, when Walter Libby, a community activist, demanded that they cease talking about the well-known talk show host because, he complained, the very thought of Limbaugh made him sick.

Witnesses said all four men started to laugh uncontrollably at the request, whereupon Mr. Libby summoned the police, who arrested them for engaging in hate speech and laughing "in a manner that would tend to make the object of the laughter feel diminished".

If the Fressers are found guilty on both charges, they each face six years in jail and fines up to $500,000.  They are currently free on bail pending trial, which is expected to begin in July.  Their defense is likely to hinge on Mr. Libby's failure to warn them of his dislike of Mr. Limbaugh before asking them to change the topic of their conversation.

Mr. Libby insists he was not obligated to warn them orally because his appearance should have put them on notice that he would be likely to despise Mr. Limbaugh. "They had to have noticed me," he said.  "There were only three other people in the whole place and I was the only one with a beard and Doc Martens who was also reading the New York Times.  Fact is they never should have been having that conversation anywhere near the West Side."

Asked whether he wasn't being overly zealous since the law had just been passed, Mr. Libby said, "No. People like me ought to be able to eat their breakfast in peace. Oh, they'll try to hide behind some simplistic claptrap about free expression, but they should have known there would be someone within the radius who would find their speech offensive. I hope they'll make an example of them."

On the West Side, Mr. Libby has become somewhat of a political powerhouse. It was only a year ago that he began his campaign for passage of the Big Apple Hate Speech Code, yet he managed to get the bill debated, written and voted upon within that period, a remarkably short time in New York City politics. "I figured it was about time somebody put a stop to all this hate speech in our public places," he said.  "If a city can stop people from smoking it can stop them from polluting their discourse with nasty speech.  Studies have shown that second-hand hate speech is just as deadly as second-hand smoke."

As originally proposed, the Code would have forbidden only the use of offensive words, such as ethnic slurs, but by the time the vote was taken, a new category of speech had been included which, while not offensive per se, might have the same effect on listeners as obvious hate speech, such as an abhorrent topic. Hence Mr. Libby's reference to second-hand hate speech.

Supporters of the law have been surprised to note that the BAHSC seems to be having the unintended but generally desirable effect of lowering the decibel level in public places.

Since the Fressers are the first to be charged under the BAHSC, supporters of the Code see this as an important test case, as the only intensely debated provision of the Code was the very provision the four are contesting: the one requiring a complainant to make known his displeasure prior to calling the authorities.  If it turns out that a complainant's footwear constitutes sufficient notice of possible offense economists fear it could have a negative impact on the city's fashion industry.

Mr. Libby has long been a tireless campaigner for improving the level of civility in a city legendary for its rudeness. Many credit him with being the driving force behind the city's Public Odiousness Abatement Initiative which placed public announcement loudspeakers in the city's 468 subway stations reminding passengers to smile when thanking their fellow riders for not shoving them onto the tracks.  He also lobbied, albeit unsuccessfully, for a grant to finance the placement of smiley-face stickers on traffic summonses.

As of this morning, Mr. Libby had not decided whether to proceed with a suit against the Fressers to recover expenses associated with his run-in with the group.  "I hate law suits," he told reporters. "But since hearing the name 'Rush Limbaugh' I've had to double my Prozac. Someone should have to pay for it."

Judith Weizner is a columnist for Frontpagemag.com.

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