IF RUDENESS is a crime, then Philadelphia evangelist Michael Marcavage is guilty as sin. But in a democracy dedicated to the principle of pluralism even when it comes to unpopular opinions, should obnoxious behavior be considered criminal? Isn't criminalizing a bad opinion a repudiation of the free speech guarantees the Americans all hold dear?
Last year Mr. Marcavage, 25, was arrested at "OutFest, " an annual gay pride event in Philadelphia to encourage homosexuals to come out of the closet. The evangelist was there to condemn homosexuality as a sin and to warn gays that they were bound for hell.
Along with fellow religious travelers who call themselves Repent America, Mr. Marcavage refused to leave when ordered by police and was arrested. The district attorney's office has decided to make an example of the protester by prosecuting him for ethnic intimidation.
No one has to be a homophobe to agree that the Philadelphia DA has crossed into tricky legal territory. By invoking his state's Ethnic Intimidation Act on a matter of free (though badgering) speech, a whole class of religious and social protest could become subject to criminal prosecution.
A great democracy should not conduct itself as if hurtful opinions are in themselves worthy of prosecution. If the opinion-holder, however, in the course of exercising free speech causes bodily injury or property damage or some other loss of someone else's rights, then the DA has a case.
Unpopular speech, in and of itself, should not be illegal.
Though we reject Michael Marcavage's scornful message, we agree with those who see a troublesome erosion in the precious right of free speech by the occasional reckless application of hate-crime laws.