What is Free Speech

What is free speech?  Our 1st amendment states “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.”  What exactly does that mean?

The 1st amendment has been used to defend everything from performers who want to use foul language in their acts or on their albums, to members of NAMBLA talking about why they think it’s ok to have sex with young boys, to arguing for and against racism, and to even threaten saying people should get their “necks broken”.

Defending popular speech is easy.  Someone standing up saying they want lower taxes from the government is something many people can support so it doesn’t become much of a debate.  Even support of a rap or rock group to use profanity is something people can support openly as free speech without too much question.  Though there are still those who seek to limit even this speech.  Look at the debates about “the pledge” with some even going so far as to try to outlaw it.  But luckily those that seek this level of oppression are few.

Defending speech most of us see as vile and disgusting, like calling out in support of racism, saying you support the molestation of young boys, or even saying things most people view as a threat however isn’t something many people would support.  Yet it is that speech, despite being something most of us would disagree with, that should be protected most of all.  For once you draw a line saying something is too disgusting to be protected speech then you open the door for that line to be moved.  And defending vile speech isn’t easy either.  One only needs to look so far as the piece Chaz wrote about me to see that people will openly attack anyone defending the speech often times misconstruing ones argument in support of someone’s right to free speech as being an argument in support of the speech itself.  That of course is idiotic and foolish, but it happens time and time again.

Looking further into speech many see as vile let us examine the Nurenberg Files.  This was a web page that painted abortion out as murder and those who performed it as murderers who should be brought to justice.  It even went so far as to compare abortion doctors to Nazis.  They listed abortionists as opponents in a war, even listing casualties of such war.  They also posted home addresses and personal information of their opponents.  As a result violent acts were in deed committed against the abortionists.  Some were even murdered.  Those who ran the web site never once condoned the actions that were taken as a result of their words yet they themselves were not the ones committing the acts.  What people seem to miss here is that there is a world of difference between words and actions.  The 9th circuit court of appeals however did see this distinction and correctly upheld the right of free speech since they were not the ones performing those acts.

The case of NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware is another good example.   Charles Evers and the NAACP organized boycotts of businesses that did not comply with civil rights laws.  Evers went so far as to even say that if any “Uncle Toms” choose not to follow the boycott they would “have their necks broken”.  Again, the Supreme Court found the line between action and words and supported free speech.

Now there are exceptions.  For instance, if I were to yell fire in a crowded theater knowing there is no fire I create a situation in which people are likely to get hurt.  But it isn’t the speech, which causes the problem here as so much as the action itself of doing it within a crowded theater.  Anyone who had the chance to see Penn and Teller on stage would know this because in part of their act they light the constitution on fire then run around in the crowded theater yelling “FIRE!” as loud as they can, well Penn does anyway as Teller doesn’t speak.  Saying something vile that people may not like and that some people may even find scary does not cross that line into action as yelling fire in a theater does.

So to get back to the question of what is free speech?  Anything and everything assuming that in so much as giving your speech you do not cross the line between speech and action.  So shame on those who seek to stifle open discussion, who seek to limit what can be said, and those who don’t want certain things said that some may find scary or offensive.