Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Word About Free Speech

Ever since Geraldine Ferraro made the statement that got her into so much trouble, I've been reading things (mostly smart-ass 'blog comments) about Free Speech.

Largely along the lines of, "Let her say what she wants; we have free speech in this country."

Or even something that ties it into, "That's why we're fighting in Iraq."

It isn't just about Ferraro, either.  I saw some comments throwing around the "Free Speech" mantra today in response to the news story about that Serbian swimmer who got suspended from the European championships for wearing a T-shirt reading "Kosovo is Serbia." 

Which means that it's time for a refresher course on Free Speech.  The "Free Speech" right that we're familiar with is the one hanging out in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  It says "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech."  The key part in that sentence is "Congress shall make no law."  It does not say, "Hey, everyone has the right to say whatever they want, wherever they want, with no consequences."  What is says is:  the federal government shall not throw your butt in jail for anything you say.

Now, through some nifty jurisprudence, the First Amendment has been made applicable to the States, so it isn't just Congress that can't abridge your right of speech, but also the State legislatures.  So, basically, if you're living in the United States, you can say whatever you want without fear of criminal prosecution.  (There are exceptions for threats and stuff, but let's keep this simple.)

This is a pretty major deal.  We take it for granted so much, we don't often realize how major a deal it is.  But as there are still plenty of countries out there where you can indeed be thrown in prison for speaking your mind (especially when what you are expressing is disagreement with government policy), we should realize how freakin' great it is that Jon Stewart can go on national television and call our Vice President the demon spawn of Darth Vader and Sauron (or whatever) without any sort of fear that the Secret Service will tear down his door and whisk him off to Gitmo in the middle of the night.  Hell, he can even say that without fear that the FCC will yank his show from the airwaves.  Or that he'd get fined.  Because Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.  It's an awesome right, and one that we probably take for granted because it is so deeply ingrained in our national identity that the very idea of government sanction for speech is simply foreign to us.

Got that?  Good.  Now let's talk about what "free speech" isn't.  Here's a newsflash.  The government lets you say whatever you want, but I don't have to listen to you.  More than that, I don't have to stand by and let you say it.  I can shout you down.  I can say that this sort of speech is not welcome in my house and kick you out for saying it.  I can decide that what you say is so outrageous, it taints the people who choose to associate with you -- and I can choose not to associate with them (or vote for them).  I can say that this sort of speech is not welcome in my place of business and fire you for saying it.

What I'm trying to say here is that this "free speech" right that we have is not the absolute right to say whatever you want free from consequences -- it is only the right to say it without facing governmental consequences.

So.  Can Ferraro say that Obama wouldn't be where he is if he weren't black?  Sure she can.  Can Reverend Wright say "God damn America"?  Absolutely.  But voters who think these are lousy things to say also have a right to withdraw their support from the candidates with whom the speakers are aligned.  And the candidates have a right to distance themselves from the speakers.  Can the Serbian swimmer stand on a street corner in the middle of America and shout his belief that Kosovo is part of Serbia?  You bet.  But the European swimming championships can have a rule saying you can't talk politics in their house, and you'll be suspended if you do.  And the same would be true of a sporting competition in this country.  Because even though, in this great land of ours, we've decided that the government can't restrict your speech, we have not taken the position that speech can't have any non-governmental consequences.

And that is, in my opinion, absolutely correct.  The government can't -- and shouldn't -- stop you from throwing your point of view out there into the ol' marketplace of ideas.  But once your words are out there, they've gotta be tested -- they've got to compete against everyone else's words in dialogue.  And when what you say is offensive or hurtful, you risk other consequences -- the loss of friendship, business, employment, financial opportunities, swimming medals, and so forth.  Indeed, if our only response to the words of someone else could be, "Well, you've got free speech," words would quickly devalue into meaningless shells -- with everyone muttering away happily to themselves, without disagreement, dialogue, persuasion, give and take, or eventual accord.  If we're going to value speech at all -- if we're going to recognize its awesome power to change the world (which we clearly do, else we wouldn't protect it from government interference), then we have to allow it to have consequences on an individual level.

So, don't go around defending any piece of potential offensive speech by saying, "Free Speech!"  Well, I mean, you can do that without fear of the government coming after you for it -- but if you, that won't stop me from thinking you're an idiot.

1 comment:

rdautumnsage said...

Well said! I've never amended the meaning of free speech to include the lack of common decent morality. In other words some people would be better off thinking before they open their mouths....then again people seldom do. As you said, they can say it...I don't have to listen to it. (Hugs) Indigo