Free Speech Gets the Death Penalty

Editor & Publisher, November 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Free Speech Gets the Death Penalty


By agreeing to a plea bargain, Aaron McKinney escaped an almost certain death sentence for his part in the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard.

McKinney and another man took Shepard, a gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, to the outskirts of Laramie, tied him to a fence, beat and pistol-whipped him, and left him to die alone on the plains. The killing made headlines around the world not only for its brutality, but also because it was apparently motivated by nothing more than hatred for homosexuals.

McKinney's plea saved his own neck - but it is no bargain for the rest of us. The agreement that sentences him to two life sentences also sets a condition unprecedented in the history of American justice: For the rest of his life, Aaron McKinney is banned from ever speaking to reporters about his murder case. The plea agreement also imposes this lifelong gag order on McKinney's entire defense team - including the public defender the people of Wyoming paid to represent McKinney.

This alarming and patently unconstitutional government restraint on free speech is being imposed not just on Aaron McKinney and his lawyers - but on the entire American public as well. The public will never be able to learn whatever perspectives McKinney and his defense team could bring to this singular event that continues to shape the debates over the death penalty, hate-crime laws, and the civil rights of homosexuals. "This [agreement] assumes on its face that the only value of free speech is to the criminal," notes Paul McMasters, the First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum. "The fact of the matter is, there is great value of that speech to the public, to scholars, and to historians. …

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