Bluff City Law asks viewers to consider if free speech has limits

BLUFF CITY LAW -- "Fire In A Crowded Theater" Episode 105 -- Pictured: Bill Heck as Campbell Mathers -- (Photo by: Katherine Bomboy/NBC)
BLUFF CITY LAW -- "Fire In A Crowded Theater" Episode 105 -- Pictured: Bill Heck as Campbell Mathers -- (Photo by: Katherine Bomboy/NBC) /

In its latest episode, “Fire in a Crowded Theater,” Bluff City Law raised the question of when, if ever, First Amendment rights should be limited.

In its freshman year at NBC, Bluff City Law has set itself apart from other legal dramas as the genre’s “feel good” story. Elijah and Sydney Strait, along with the other core cast members, spent the series’ first three episodes establishing themselves as the lawyers (and colleagues) with heart, who fight for what’s right against all odds—and even manage to win. But Season 1, Episode 4 took the casework into a much more uncomfortable area, where what was right and what was legal were potentially at odds.

Clearly drawing from the still-gaping wound left by Heather Heyer’s murder while protesting an alt-right “Unite the Right” gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bluff City Law’s case-of-the-week saw Elijah Strait fighting for the bereaved family of a young girl named Ashley Webster. Unlike Heyer, Webster was shot—not run over by a car—at a “Sons of Light” event; but the images from the fictional rally were disturbingly similar to those scenes, of angry young men toting tiki torches, we’ve had imprinted on our national consciousness following the August 2017 events. In both cases, the murderer was tried and convicted; the legal drama’s Kevin Bays was a stand-in for Heather Heyer’s murderer, James Alex Fields.

Heather and Ashley’s murders had another thing in common: The events leading up to their deaths could have been prevented if only prominent figures hadn’t been able to influence and assemble their rage-driven followers. In Heyer’s case, it was Jason Kessler, who planned a similar series of “First Amendment activities,” per D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a year after her murder; for Ashley Webster, it was the well-dressed and unapologetic Campbell Mathers, who likened his all-caps, violence-promoting tweets to the same hard work done by the key African American Civil Rights leaders depicted in his city’s Liberty Mural.

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That brings us to the clear question set forth by Bluff City Law in its best, yet most unsettling episode yet: At what point, if any, should the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution be limited?

What Campbell Mathers called a planned “peaceful rally” ended in a shooting death; and as far as Ashley Webster’s parents were concerned, Mathers’ words—not just Bays’ bullet—were to blame for their daughter’s murder. It was this assertion, as well as the tearful question of where the violence would end, that caused Elijah Strait to take on a civil suit against Mathers himself. Winning, however, might mean setting a precedent for legally limiting certain types of speech, which meant that Elijah’s biggest supporter to date (at least in the courtroom), Sydney, wouldn’t be his second seat.

More than once, Sydney defended her decision to sit this case out; and her reasoning always boiled down to wanting to protect freedoms for all, even though it meant allowing vile viewpoints like Mathers’ to be out in the open. As she told her father, she was concerned about innocent people who might be “held accountable in dangerous ways” if they truly spoke their minds.

After all, if Elijah managed to prove that Mathers’ words, presented in tweets like, “MAKE THEM BLEED FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE!” were to blame for a young woman’s murder, what would prevent someone else’s social media behavior from getting them into serious legal trouble? If the system were able to silence a dangerous voice like Mathers, how would any of us be safe from the possibility of our own views, and expression thereof, from being marked equally dangerous and therefore banned? Even when Briana, herself a woman of color who had experienced hate “every day,” asked Sydney why she wasn’t supporting the fight against Mathers, Sydney stood firm:

"I do think that protecting his right to speak is the only way to protect yours or mine."

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Not surprisingly, Sydney wasn’t the only lawyer worried about the right to free speech; Campbell Mathers’ attorney, Rachel Madsen, used the First Amendment as a key part of her defense strategy. Over drinks with Elijah, Rachel pointed out that Elijah’s idea of what’s right (in this case, silencing a violent racist, who influenced others to be violent and racist) didn’t always align with what was legal. During her closing arguments, she admitted to hating everything her client stood for—yet she still stood by his right to say whatever he wished.

"We have laws in our country that protect our right to free speech. Those laws protect us from oppression, and they protect us from ourselves."

But what about when the laws do the opposite of protecting citizens? The law failed to protect the mentally ill Kevin Bays, who after years of being angry at how different he was from his classmates, turned to Campbell Mathers’ words for comfort. Instead, Kevin took his idol’s words and, quite literally, made them his own.

While interviewing Kevin as a witness, Anthony Little read one of the white supremacist’s facebook posts. After verifying with Kevin that he had written, and fully believed, every word about diversity destroying America and the need to protect the white race, Anthony revealed that what Kevin had written was actually a series of direct quotes from Campbell. Kevin, however, had no idea that those words were not his own; somewhere along the line, he’d regurgitated them enough times that he was able to convince himself they were his personal ideas. Kevin was so mixed up, in fact, that he couldn’t even explain to Anthony why he disliked him for the color of his skin—he just knew that he did.

Most obviously, allowing speech to venture, unchecked, into the land of hate speech didn’t protect Bluff City Law‘s victim. Nor was the right to free speech any kind of safeguard against violence for Heather Heyer. According to Elijah Strait, there was a law about limiting free speech for the purposes of safety, though.

"The law says one cannot yell ‘fire’ into a crowded theater, knowing that there is no fire, for to do so is to willingly incite a riot…Our world is changing; technology is bringing us together like never before. And in this new reality, rallies like this are the new crowded theater. Posting messages, filled with hate, in real time, to your legion of followers is like shouting ‘fire.’ Campbell Mathers shouted ‘fire.’ Campbell Mathers shouted ‘fire.’"

In the world of Bluff City Law, this was enough for Ashley Masters’ family to win their civil suit against Campbell Mathers; but Elijah’s key argument—about yelling fire in a crowded theater—was purposely over-simplified for the jury, different in the world of the television series, or just plain wrong. What does that mean, though? After a difficult, emotional episode, which saw Anthony Little nearly attacked by a group of white supremacists in the court’s restroom and constantly showed images that were far-too-similar to Charlottesville—including the death of an innocent girl—did Bluff City Law come to no conclusion at all?

If we look at the series’ first three episodes, with the “good guys” on Team Strait always winning, and think about what was at stake in terms of giving ourselves a no-tolerance policy for racists, then the answer was clear all along: There’s no place for hate speech in this world, regardless of what the law may say.

The problem, of course, is that the question Bluff City Law asked in “Fire in a Crowded Theater” was far more complicated than in any of the previous three episodes. There’s an often-quoted line from Voltaire about defending the right to say what you want to the death, even when what you’re saying is something we disagree with. In some ways, the First Amendment puts Voltaire’s statement on the law of the land.

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But after Charlottesville, and after other recent events, we’ve seen the potential hate speech has for creating violence. In creating an episode filled with discomfort and clear warnings from both sides of the argument, Bluff City Law has challenged its viewers in the best possible way: asking us to consider what we want to see in our version of a better world and, just as importantly, what we might risk losing in order to bring about change. After all, as Elijah asked Caitlin, “it’s scary, isn’t it, when fighting for what’s right creates uncertainty?”

Don’t miss the next all-new episode of Bluff City Law on Monday, October 21, at 10/9c on NBC!