Washington The Supreme Court is being asked to consider whether shooting at pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden is an expression of free speech or a dangerous drill that could lead to the killing of real people.
It's among several free speech cases the court may review when it returns in October.
Free speech versus public safety is familiar territory for this court, which has tended to side with those favoring less restriction on expression.
"Unlike other controversial areas they avoid, with free speech they jump in with both feet," said Washington lawyer Thomas Goldstein, who specializes in Supreme Court litigation.
The court will announce this fall whether it will review the gun case, which involves a challenge to a 4-year-old Massachusetts law forbidding target practice on human images at certain gun clubs. The ban applies to clubs that have a special license for large-capacity weapons.
The law, the only one of its kind, was challenged by a group that includes gun clubs, a minister, and a retired military officer who competes in wheelchair shooting events. Their attorney, Stephen Halbrook, calls the law "political correctness to the ultimate degree."
Another free speech case on its way to the court involves a fight over a Nike Inc. campaign defending conditions in overseas factories. An activist accused the company of deceiving consumers with claims that plant workers receive a living wage.
Justices already have agreed to hear this fall a challenge to a 50-year-old Virginia law outlawing cross burning and a federal racketeering law used against abortion clinic demonstrators. The court also is examining a copyright case that will determine if books, songs and movies will become freely available soon over the Internet.
The court also may hear in the upcoming term a challenge to the new federal campaign finance law.
The First Amendment forbids government from "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble." Speech that threatens public safety or national security can be curbed, courts have ruled.
The court has a history of plunging into difficult free speech cases. Justices have sided with Hustler Magazine, Playboy's television network and a white supremacist group. They struck down a law that punished U.S. flag burners and threw out an ordinance banning "hate speech" such as a swastika display.
Floyd Abrams, a New York attorney who has argued 10 free speech cases before the Supreme Court, said justices turn away scores of cases involving other amendments. But the First Amendment "continues to have a magnet-like draw on the court," he said.
This year the court overturned parts of a 1996 child pornography law, ruling the government went too far in trying to ban computer simulations and other depictions of teenagers or children having sex.
The court also told Minnesota it was wrong to limit what judges could say when campaigning and it slapped down the 287-person village of Stratton, Ohio, for requiring permits for door-to-door solicitors.
Overall, the court heard 18 free speech cases in the past three years. In half, it sided with challengers claiming their constitutional rights were violated, according to Goldstein, who tracks such rulings.
"The message is not that free speech is untouchable and can never be regulated, but that it must be done carefully," said Keith Werhan, a constitutional law professor at Tulane University.