Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Consequence?

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June 12, 2009 by D Stack

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

And if I could get my hands on Tiller — well, you know. Can’t be vigilantes. Can’t do that. It’s just a figure of speech.

Bill O’Reilly, 2006, on abortionist George Tiller

A freedom you’ll often hear us Americans quote is “Freedom of Speech” from the 1st Amendment. Technically the 1st Amendment only bans congress from passing laws restricting speech. A private employer can regulate speech as can the host of a web page. So can the owner of a television or radio station.

One of the issues you’ll find on college campuses is that of speech codes. When I was an undergrad at UConn in the late 80s and early 90s we had speech codes that prohibited “fighting words” and “inappropriately directed laughter”. This was eventually (and after my time) struck down in Federal Court – the University being a state institution made it subject to the 1st Amendment.

Despite my whacko liberal leanings, I’m very much against speech codes. Even though speech can be ugly. And it can be hateful. I’ve had gay and Jewish friends targeted by vile words.

Though I find myself against speech codes, I don’t believe one should be free from consequence. I remember when Sinead O’Connor terminated her career after tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. She got booed at concerts. She couldn’t sell her music. People complained that she had freedom of speech. And she did. But people were free to react to that speech. Which they did, reacting with their wallets.

Over the past several years both the left and the right have ratcheted up the rhetoric. A Google search will find many matches for George W. Bush being a fascist and conspiracy theories that he would not give up power in 2009. And a Google search for Obama will quickly inform you that he is a Marxist planning on nationalizing every company in the United States.

I’ve made no secret of my own political biases, but it seems like the conspiracies about Obama are a bit more mainstream than those about Bush. But I do believe that both sides need to dial back the rhetoric. You do indeed have freedom of speech, but we must never forget that speech has consequences. When our nation declared its independence, we felt it important enough to write down the reasons why (and zinged King George III repeatedly in the process). So our nation is no stranger to being aware of the consequences of speech, the expression of ideas.

Turn on your radio sometime. Listen to some nuggets from Rush Limbaugh. For example did you know Sotomayor is equivalent to David Duke?

How can a president nominate such a candidate? And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That’s what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive.

May 29, 2009

And from Glenn Beck:

Gun sales are going up through the roof.

And let me tell you something, I really truly believe the reason why — a lot of Americans aren’t paying attention to this — is because they…does anybody remember the poem, you know, first they came for the Jews and I didn’t stand up because I wasn’t a Jew? Do you know that — from Germany?

In the end, I think this is the problem. First, they came for the banks. I wasn’t a banker. I didn’t really care. I didn’t stand up and say anything.

Then they came for the AIG executives. Then they came for the car companies — and I didn’t say anything.

Until it gets down to you — most people don’t see they are coming for you at some point. You’re on the list. Everybody’s on the list.

May 15, 2009

So do you really believe this is a legitimate concern? Think about it. Do you believe that the government will really one day come to round you up? If so, it would seem to be your patriotic duty to, at the very least, spread the word in a coherent manner. Spell it out. Explain how the plan will work. Show how it is illegal in your eyes. Rebut the counterarguments. Don’t be afraid of a debate, welcome it.

And have some responsibility for your words. If the leader of the government, the chief executive, really is that bad, does it not follow that a true patriot would be willing to risk his or her life to kill this monster. It seems akin to gunning Hitler down in the early 1930s before he really got things going. You have to realize some will draw that conclusion. Are you responsible for their actions? Directly, no. But you have responsibility for your words. Your words which fertilized the soil that allowed such a crop to grow. And of course even reasonable speech can encourage some people to extreme action. But there is a world of difference between indicating problems with the president’s economic plan and comparing him to Hitler. (And that goes for liberals when a republican is in office as well).

Do I want some sort of fairness doctrine back? No. But, to quote the Federation President from Star Trek VI:

Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we CAN do a thing it does not necessarily follow that we MUST do that thing.

(Hey I’ve also made no secret that I’m a geek.) What we need is personal responsibility. I cannot be responsible for every action people take in reaction to what I say, but I can be careful to say it in such a way so as to promote debate, sway minds, make changes I believe to be positive. I don’t think Rush Limbaugh should be on the radio. I’d love to hear someone say “I will not give you a forum, you are not deserving of it.”

And there are people of both parties and political persuasions who are amazingly articulate without diving for the gutter. Compare George Will to Rush Limbaugh. Aside from when he talks about baseball (he’d be an awesome baseball commentator) I rarely agree with George Will. But I also rarely regret reading his columns. He backs up his arguments well and makes his point articulately. And occasionally he manages to sway me from my own opinions. For example, he makes excellent points regarding how the Constitution does not have any provision allowing for Washington, D.C. to have congressional representation. He does not indicate he is against them receiving such representation, rather he indicates the Constitution, as written, does not allow for it. This is the way civil discourse should be made. Let me leave you with Thomas Jefferson’s words in one of his last letters, to Henry Lee in May of 1825. Compare his use of language with the use of those on talk radio:

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.

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