Sunday, July 03, 2005

Free speech

Free speech is a commonly discussed topic these days. Seems like you cannot trip over the paper on the front porch without seeing some headline concerning it.

But I think lately it is also terribly misunderstood.

The idea was awesome I have to admit. The First amendment to the Constitution says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

There it is, clear as day. Congress shall make no law....abridging the freedom of speech. So then how did it become so twisted and meaningless?

First, near as I can tell, the current ideas of free speech are a myth. What the 1st amendment says is that "Congress shall not..." there is no specific restrictions on states, schools, cities, local communities or any other manner of organization, yet most of those places are where most cases come up. The concept was intended to prevent the Federal Government from being tyrannical. What we have instead is every special interest group in the world clamoring for attention, and demanding to have their speech be free, while restricting everyone else's. Sure, it is probably a very good thing that so many states and other other governing bodies try to follow it in spirit, but all that aside, the constitution seems to protect against federal restriction primarily.

And not only that, but suddenly the idea has become extended to not just speech, but expression, so not only is speech protected, but so apparently is graffiti, porn, obscene art and nameless other actions.

But let's say I am way off base with my thinking that free speech was intended as a federal measure. Even if we accept the modern interpretations, there are so many controls and restrictions and exceptions, that it might as well not exist, and I am not talking about the "yelling fire in a movie theater" example.

Here lately we are seeing all manner of wild tangents:

A Flag Burning amendment: Critics claim that banning flag burning is a violation of freedom of expression.

Using the word God in a term paper: A teacher gave a student a failing grade on a term paper for using the word God in it, she is claiming this violated her right to free speech.

Porn on local access TV: A local cable access program was sued when they canceled a locally produced porn show, the creator claiming it was his freedom of expression.

Parades: A local parade canceled a float containing people suspending themselves on hooks. Of course the float maker claimed it was a freedom of expression issue.

Libraries: Porn on library computers has been claimed as free speech.
It seems that on both sides of the issue, no one can agree what is speech and what is not, and whether it is free or not.

For my part, I regard it as a very necessary principle on a democracy, but one that has been terribly abused, like so many other modern issues. And don't get me wrong, I think that freedom of speech (which makes my blog possible) should be protected. But I also think that somewhere along the way a sense of realism and responsibility needs to surface. I think we lost our understanding of what the value and cost of it is.

The way I see it, free speech is as much a responsibility as it is a right, or a privilege.

I think if you want to see free speech in action, go where it has been denied and ask the people there about how life was when saying the wrong things would send you to prison, or even to your death.

Go to Iraq, and ask the people there who can now speak openly without fearing for their lives if that freedom also means a cross in jar of urine. Ask the people whose lives were lost fighting for it, if it should have meant the ability to curse at a teacher and not be suspended.

Today is Independence Day.

Consider what that freedom means. By all means use it, and fight diligently to protect it, but take a moment and try to understand what it cost and what its real value is.