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Last week, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Ten Commandments monument in a city park in Utah. The monument had been privately donated 40 years earlier. It was one of a dozen old signs and markers in the same park. A new religious group called Summum sought permission to put up a monument displaying its Seven Aphorisms. The city refused. Summum then sued under the First Amendment. It charged the city with violating the free-speech clause by discriminating against its Seven Aphorisms. It also threatened to charge the city with violating the religious establishment clause by displaying the Ten Commandments alone. This left the city with a hard choice: take down the Ten Commandments or put up the Seven Aphorisms.

The Supreme Court would have none of it. In last week's case, Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, the court treated the Ten Commandments monument as a form of permissible government speech. A government "is entitled to say what it wishes" and may select certain views in favor of others, Justice Alito wrote for the court. It may express its views by putting up its own tax-paid monuments or by accepting monuments donated by private parties whose contens it need not fully endorse. In this case, city officials had earlier accepted a Ten Commandments monument on grounds that it reflected the "[a]esthetics, history, and local culture" of the city. The free-speech clause does not give a private citizen a "heckler's veto" over that old decision. Nor does it compel the city to accept every privately donated monument once it has accepted the first. Government speech is simply "not bound by the free-speech clause," the court concluded, or subject to judicial second-guessing under the First Amendment. ...

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March 2009

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