If we were to prioritize the Freedoms articulated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, I would select ‘free speech” as the most important. Without the ability of an individual to speak freely – and even offensively – freedom of religion would have no meaning. Freedom of the press would be a myth. Our right to assemble and especially to protest would be encumbered.
Free speech is fundamental to personal freedoms across the board. That is why among the first acts of authoritarian despots and dictators is to “control” speech through censorship – and to limit the scope of communication and public discourse to government sanctioned propaganda.
I am a First Amendment extremist.
To me, free speech means just that – to express one’s opinion regardless of how that opinion may be viewed by listeners. I subscribe to the statement that “I may not agree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” Well, maybe not to the death, but you get the point.
And yes, that means even speech that is utterly offensive and pejorative. I do not agree with this new generation of political “snowflakes” that see it as the responsibility of government to protect their fragile egos from harsh and insulting words — even of the most offensive kind.
I do agree that freedom of speech does not extend to inciting riots or as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, to “yelling fire in a crowded theater.” That is a misuse of speech for criminal physically dangerous purposes. It is, in fact, using speech to deny constitutional rights to others.
The Berkley Free Speech Movement of the 1960s tested the right of free speech as it applied to vulgar language, and the courts decided that crudity and insults are protected in the public commons – and that even means what we call hate speech.
In this era of hypersensitivity, we are perilously close to censoring what has been long regarded legal and culturally accepted speech. As we slide down that slippery slope of political correctness, matters of political or religious differences are being seen as hate speech. There are those who would criminalize not believing in the government version of climate change, expressing concern about illegal border crossers or arguing against abortion as a woman’s right.
The right of free speech does not require that we be liked, popular or even correct. At its foundation, it means we have a right … a right … to speak as we wish in public or the privacy of our own homes. I say our “own homes” because the right of free speech does not carry outside the commons of our proprietary private places.
That is why businesses have a right to restrict speech on company premises. You can get fired for standing on your desk at work and giving a political speech no matter how eloquent you may be – or justified you may feel. When athletes or actors symbolically claim free speech by disrespecting the National Anthem while “at work,” it is only allowable with the permission of the company bosses.
As a trend, more and more Americans are living in high rises and gated communities. This makes it difficult – and in some cases impossible – for politicians and public policy advocates to hand out literature or secure signatures for candidacy petitions. This tends to immobilize candidates and activists from engaging in free speech – and denies the public critical information in exercising its other constitutional rights.
The danger of limiting and not respecting free speech is that it is arbitrary. In today’s climate, make a pejorative comment about a racial minority, and there are severe consequences, including the punitive aspects of hate speech. On the other hand, make a claim that men have “toxic genes,” and you get invited to appear on talk shows.
Once we arrive at the place where free speech is so severely limited, and government is allowed to be the arbiter of opinion, we have not just lost the right of free speech, but have nullified the entire First Amendment, the Bill of Rights and much of the Constitution, itself.
So, as we celebrate our nation’s birth of freedom and independence, let us speak out strongly for the right to speak out strongly.
So, there ‘tis.