Defining Free Speech

It seems that everyone is having their rights violated these days. In what has become the default, almost cliche, position of American politics, the wolf-cry of liberty restrained forms a deafening din. “I am an American, I know my rights!” has been the cliched response of Americans abroad for decades; only now, as the Information Age reinforces its grip, has the phrase become an accepted political refrain.

How far do individual rights extend, and who is their arbiter? Historically, defenders of rights often push their claim to extremes in order to protect their core position. Just as often, the forces of opposition on a given right or liberty push back with a power that matches the original extreme. Advocates against gun violence may push for outright consumer bans; their opponents respond with equally extreme laws (say, passing a law ensuring the legality of firearms in church.) An atheist minority may push for the removal of popular Christian symbolism, inspiring a push-back that includes a war against reason itself. Historically, our nation has been able to slowly, incrementally, get past these flash-points of idealism and settle on more just policies.

Free speech is the flash-point at the forefront today. As an artifact of the Bill of Rights, free speech is an example of advanced citizenship in that the defense of the liberty requires a tolerance of concepts that one individual might despise.

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.

The Founders were inspired by the ideals of free expression, and directly motivated by the censorship of their views by the King of England. This amendment codifies the rights of the people to communicate without fear of government interference. It establishes a press outside of the control of government. It establishes that government should not be involved in the promotion or restraint of religion. This amendment does not say anything about the actions of private individuals regarding these liberties.

Thus the ferocity and misunderstanding of today’s debate; free speech does not preclude vociferous and ferocious criticism. It does not preclude racist commentary, nor does it preclude the criticism of such commentary. The only limitations on these rights, and any others, occur when the actions cause or enable direct harm. The idea of politically correct speech has its genesis in avoiding the enabling of direct harm through hateful or ignorant speech. It is an important element in the cultural growth of our nation; many of us may have laughed at jokes 30 years ago that we now understand to be hurtful and harmful. But this concept can never be allowed the support of government action.

It is for that reason that recent responses to Dr. Laura’s idiotic rant (go hear for the transcript and audio) and Glenn Beck’s persistent racism have been limited to the marketplace. Much as conservative family groups have often led boycotts against firms engaging in activities not meeting a certain standard, respondents to these personalities focus on the commercial interests that support their activities. Bill O’Reilly has been calling the Daily Kos a publication of a dangerous radical for years now. Conservatives politicians and pundits literally accused then Candidate Obama of being a terrorist. Neither those examples, nor the direct criticisms of conservative media figures by liberal interests, are violations of anyone’s free speech. Attempts to organize boycotts are not abridgments of free speech, they are, as a point of fact, the most constitutional way to deal with speech one finds offensive.

Although I generally avoid giving her publicity, the Ex-Half-Term herself weighed in on the Dr. Laura controversy in a way the further reaffirms the fact that Sarah Palin has no idea what the Constitution of the United States actually says. I am not referring to interpretations of the document, I am writing of the specific language. This is the Alaskan Quitter’s tweet supporting Dr. Laura:

Dr.Laura:don’t retreat…reload! (Steps aside bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence”isn’t American,not fair”)

I mention this in my conclusion because the tweet begs the question; do these people believe that the Constitution forbids criticism of and market response to individual speech? If Dr. Laura’s career in media is over, it is because her comments have made her no longer commercially viable. Her speech may be defended from government action by the 1st Amendment, but it is promulgated to the masses by commercial interests. If the infantile former candidate for Vice President doesn’t like it, she should consider fighting against capitalism instead. Dr. Laura will always have the ability to speak, and in the same fashion as the Ex-Half-Term; all she needs is a Facebook account and Dr. Laura can share in Sarah Palin’s twilight political relevance.

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