On Free Speech

The tragic events in Charlottesville last weekend have shown us the reality that there still exist people who hold to repugnant views and are driven to express them in outrageous and sometimes violent ways.

The whole thing was like some alternate universe.  From the…let’s say ‘confusing’, at the least, series of responses from President Trump who couldn’t give a clear cut response to what was an obvious problem, to the rally organizers who derided President Trump for his Jewish son-in-law and Slavic wife, to…. well, just fill in the blank.  One can’t help but wonder if others were looking around, too, wondering if they were in some dream from which we would wake up (nightmares are  dreams, right?)

Unfortunately, the events in Charlottesville itself were not the only troubling ones.  The whole incident has brought up an important issue, one that has been fundamental to the country and society, that being the issue of free speech.

Free speech has been increasingly under attack, often the most visible being on college campuses which used to be hailed as bastions of free speech and exchange of ideas, no matter how unpopular.  And now, in the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville, free speech assaults have renewed passion.

Throughout the history of the United States, free speech has been not only a cherished right but one that has remained uncompromised.  Courts at all levels have upheld the 1st Amendment right of free expression, including court cases that allowed the Nazi Party to march in the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie a number of years ago.

Free speech means even unpopular ideas can have voice, even if they are to the point of being disgusting, obnoxious and vile are protected.   The only exceptions are the classic court opinion that you can’t “yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” and speech that may directly advocate or threaten violence.  The 1st Amendment—the first issue addressed in the Constitution–includes freedom of speech because it’s that important.

But not only does the 1st Amendment protect free speech but there is a good reason to do so.  If freedom of expression was not protected by the Constitution, who would decide who could say what?   Who would determine what was banned?  Would it just be ‘hate speech’?  And what is ‘hate speech’?  We can easily think back into history to things that used to be considered ‘radical’, ‘crazy’ things such as freeing slaves or giving women the right to vote  or to go back even further, to say that a king wasn’t anointed by God to rule and that people should have a say in their own government.   And people were actually put in jail for saying that (which of course goes a long way to explain how we got the 1st Amendment).

Yet we are seeing people and groups who advocated for tolerance are now advocating for censorship of those things they don’t like and disagree with.  Even to the point that there is are organized groups that not only want to censor speech but are in favor of using violence to keep racist groups from speaking and holding public meetings.

Free speech is guaranteed by the Constitution and it is disturbing to find a seemingly growing number of people who say it shouldn’t be.  (As a related aside, such things as this are the reasons that we should stop taking social studies, and civics out of our public schools where are common values are taught.)

Free speech is important in a democratic society.  We ought to cherish and value the exchange of ideas even if it means we shake our heads in shame at some of the things we hear.  Our democratic society will not survive without it.   Yet, by all means, when that freedom of speech crosses the line into violence against others or breaks any other laws then the punishment ought to be swift and harsh.   With freedom comes responsibility, and we need to make sure we enforce both.

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