ACLU-NJ Exec. Says Trayvon Martin-Inspired Mural is Protected Speech

After the Rutgers University satirical campus newspaper The Daily Medium published an article with the headline “What about the good things Hitler did?” and attributed it to a Jewish student, the university decided to conduct an investigation into the matter as a possible bias incident. But ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs said the paper and its staff are protected by freedom of speech. She sat down with NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider to discuss the Rutgers case as well as a controversial mural in Elmwood Park inspired by the death of a teenager at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer.

Jacobs said the student, Aaron Marcus, is a public figure because he has spoken on campus and risen to national prominence. “When an individual is a public figure there’s a different standard than if he were just a student they picked out of the blue based on religious or other considerations,” she said.

Jacobs explained that Marcus, and any public figure, is permitted to sue for defamation or libel, “but in this case there would not probably be a good outcome because as a public figure you open yourself up to criticism and you open yourself up to parody and satire as was the case in this student’s experience.”

A mural on a deli in Elmwood Park inspired by the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin is drawing criticism from some and municipal officials are working to remove it. Jacobs said officials are referring to zoning laws that she believes are unclear. “We believe that this is free speech,” she said.

Jacobs explained that political speech has a higher level of protection than other types of speech. She also said it’s society’s role to decide if speech is acceptable, not the government’s.

“The ACLU has been dealing with complaints from around the state about lawn signs and towns trying to restrict people from expressing their opinions on their own lawns,” Jacobs said. “And this is essentially a very large lawn sign and that is protected speech and it’s something that the Supreme Court decided in a 9-0 opinion in the favor of free speech.”