TROY John Koletas has been testing this city's First Amendment resolve for a very long time.
Three decades ago, the controversial pastor of the Grace Baptist Church in Lansingburgh was best known as a street preacher who tried to save the souls of passersby in downtown Troy. In a not-quiet voice, he'd demand that they repent for their sins.
The shouting wasn't always appreciated, unsurprisingly, and Koletas was repeatedly charged with disorderly conduct. Eventually, Koletas filed a lawsuit arguing that he had a First Amendment right to preach on the street and that his repeated arrests amounted to unconstitutional harassment. Two national TV shows Fox's "A Current Affair" and NBC's "Inside Edition" even came to Troy to report on the controversy.
Koletas ultimately lost in court, when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1995 that police did nothing wrong by arresting him.
Had I been a columnist for this newspaper back then, I generally would have been on Koletas' side. I would have argued, in other words, that he did in fact have a free speech right to preach outside, at least within reason.
No, a person shouldn't be allowed to holler on the street at, say, midnight. People do need to sleep, after all. Laws against unreasonable noise are justified.
But certainly, the city needed to accommodate the preacher's free speech rights without needless harassment. Koletas had the right to preach, even if few passersby wanted to hear it.
Fast forward three decades, and Koletas is again attracting attention. AR-15 rifle giveaways at Grace Baptist and Koletas' consistently hateful rhetoric toward Blacks, Jews, Muslims and Catholics have attracted Black Lives Matter protesters to the Fourth Street church in recent weeks.
As I noted in a column published Sunday that focused on Koletas' attacks on Catholicism, protesters aren't coming to Grace Baptist to attack Christianity or religion, as some in conservative media would have you believe. They're protesting what Koletas says, and justifiably so.
As has been well documented by bloggers and others, Koletas has referred to Blacks as "termites" and "savages." He has described himself as a racist who "believes the races should be kept separate as much as possible." Koletas says Catholicism, like the Muslim faith, is incompatible with democracy and the Bill of Rights.
In response to Sunday's column, a few supporters of Grace Baptist claimed I was attempting to silence or "cancel" Koletas' freedom of religion or speech. But I suggested no such thing.
I believe strongly that Koletas has the First Amendment right to pray and preach as he wants, assuming he stops short of advocating violence. Likewise, his followers have a First Amendment right to listen. And yes, protesters, columnists and Facebook commenters all have a First Amendment right to object to what Koletas says.
Free speech for everybody! What a concept.
Freedom of speech seems to be falling out of fashion, though. We increasingly hear that some words are too harmful to be spoken or that listeners have the right not to be offended. On college campuses, even relatively dull speakers such as economist Art Laffer can find themselves "deplatformed" for supposedly offensive views.
The shift, if widely accepted, will redefine free speech rights as we've long understood them. Actually, it would all but eliminate true freedom of speech. After all, if you can't say something that somebody might find offensive, you can hardly say anything provocative. You're limited to a fairly narrow range of expression.
The result would be a stifling monoculture of thought, devoid of intellectual diversity or compelling debate. And as any good gardener can tell you, there's nothing interesting about a monoculture.
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear, wrote George Orwell in an essay planned as the introduction to "Animal Farm" that also included this gem of a line: "People don't see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you."
Had I been walking down a street in Troy in the early 1990s, I suppose I wouldn't have wanted to hear Koletas' call that I repent for my sins. I wouldn't want to sit through one of his sermons today. (Happily, I don't have to.)
But we allow Koletas to speak so that we all may speak. We counter his words with our own words.
Freedom of speech for everybody! It's a crucial concept.
firstname.lastname@example.org 518-454-5442 @chris_churchill
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