“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” — First Amendment
Incidents such as these provoke outrage from people who point out, rightly, that such behavior is offensive. But then, some flustered individual will defend the racist girls or the marching band or whatever by proclaiming, in full-on righteous fury, “Whatever happened to freedom of speech in this country?” The implication is that daring to criticize someone for vile behavior is antithetical to American values, and may even be illegal.
Well, I’d like to present the following scenario to those individuals: I will show up on your front lawn with a bullhorn. For an hour, I will yell into the bullhorn — at your neighbors, passing cars, pizza-delivery guys and so on — that you are a pedophile communist who gets his kicks by burning down churches and strangling kittens. And you can’t do anything about it because I’m, you know, exercising my freedom of speech.
That doesn’t seem quite right, does it?
Well, that’s because freedom of speech does not mean that you can shoot your mouth off anytime on any subject using any crazed, derogatory or obscene language you like.
Freedom of speech is one of those nebulous concepts that Americans claim to cherish, but really don’t understand all that well.
The idea is based on the First Amendment, of course. But, as we all know (or should know) the First Amendment doesn’t apply to slander, obscenity, so-called “fighting words” and other exceptions. And in any case, the very concept deals specifically with the U.S. government. It means the president can’t order you to shut up, and Congress can’t pass a law saying you’re wrong, and the FBI can’t duct tape your mouth shut. The First Amendment does not mean, however, that I am forbidden from walking up to you and saying, “Dude, your opinion is idiotic.” I’m not the government.
Aside from the misplaced emphasis on the Constitution, many Americans seem to believe that freedom of speech is some bizarre version of calling dibs, in that whomever yells first cannot possibly be upbraided without oppressing his rights. But, once you exercise your freedom of speech, it doesn’t mean that you are somehow immune to criticism. It doesn’t mean people have to agree with you. Besides being absurd, such an attitude runs into an immediate paradox. After all, if you dismiss my criticism, aren’t you shutting down my freedom of speech?
In truth, we can’t hide behind a powerful principle to justify our repulsive behavior. Yes, you’re free to be a jerk, and I’m free to call you on it. So it’s best to drop the appeals to the Constitution and the implication that this is all about idealism and lofty values. That’s just wrong.
Of course, if you disagree with me, feel free to speak out.