One of the first things I should put out there is that I am a staunch First Amendment advocate. Some might even say to the extreme. While it’s understandably easy to want to succumb to the temptation to squelch speech or expression that one disagrees with or finds offensive, even vulgar, it always makes me cringe whenever I hear anyone say to the effect, “They shouldn’t be allowed to say that.”
As far as amendments go, this one seems to be a little crowded. It’s almost as if they tried to stuff too much ideology in right off the bat. While it could be argued that all of these ideologies are interrelated at least to a certain degree, this amendment could have easily been split into three, maybe even four individual amendments. While I consider all of the aspects of the First Amendment of great importance, this particular post is mainly focused on the free speech/free expression aspect.
A shining example of the freedom of speech issue lately is the news and social media buzz concerning an image floating around of comedienne Kathy Griffin holding up a fake severed head of Donald Trump. In bad taste? To say the least. Vulgar? Most definitely. Illegal? Absolutely not!! Should it be illegal? Well, let’s think about that a moment, shall we?
It’s been pointed out, and rightly so, that numerous images were abundantly distributed of Obama being hung in effigy, set on fire, or otherwise alluding to harm of the former president, not to mention well known rocker Ted Nugent on more than one occasion alluding to a desire to fatally injure our first black commander in chief. And in spite of what the media would like most of us to believe, these two were absolutely not the first presidents to be subjected to such extreme dislike. Should all these people be penalized or incarcerated for such heinous displays of discontent?
Perhaps a lot of people think they should. Hell, maybe even a majority of people think they should. But that’s one of the great things about our Constitution. When it comes right down to it, it really doesn’t give a shit what a majority of the people want. In most instances, that’s what Constitutions are designed to do.
One of my favorite movies was “The People vs Larry Flint”, where the Hustler magazine publisher released a story so vile that he was sued in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. One of the main messages of that story was, if we don’t believe in free speech for even the most heinous and despicable among us, then we don’t believe in it for anyone. If we allow the government to pick and choose what is “protected” as free speech and what isn’t, where would it end?
A number of years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that “obscenity” was not speech or expression that was protected under the First Amendment. In my opinion, this was one of worst rulings in the court’s history. (As I said near the beginning of this post, my views on this would probably be considered extreme.) It is small consolation, although consolation nonetheless, that the court also made the definition of “obscenity” so broad that most forms of speech would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fall under that category. That same broadness, however, does make it dangerously subject to interpretation. “I’ll know it when I see it” is just a downright piss-poor way to make a legal determination.
This is not to say in any way that speech or expression should not be free of consequences. If Kathy Griffin’s employer wishes to fire her for what she said or did, they are perfectly within their rights to do so. Same if her fans wish to boycott her performances, or if people refuse to buy any more of Nugent’s records or protest his performances. Those also are forms of speech and expression.
One of the reasons I stayed away from Facebook for so long was because I tend to get addicted to the neverending barrage of posts and articles I come across. Once again, that addiction is starting to rear its ugly head. Not only the posts and articles, but I also quite often delve into the comments sections of those posts out of curiosity as to the general public’s reactions to them. In many instances, it can end up broadening my mind, and possibly making me think in other directions or consider aspects that might not have occurred to me from just reading the post or article. I quite often find myself in “information overload”, sometimes ‘force-feeding’ myself even more information before I’ve had a chance to fully absorb all that I’d taken in so far, until eventually I reach a point where I have to just pry myself away.
Unlike many people, I don’t mind in the slightest having my beliefs or conceptions challenged. It will either solidify my position or broaden my perception. Either way I win. But there is a lot of mindless crap one has to dig through as well. Some of it vile, some of it disgusting, some of it even what I would consider “obscene”, some of it just juvenile in nature. You have to take the good with the bad. Even if some of that “bad” pisses you off. Sometimes even because it pisses you off.
There are two main dangers to censorship and the squelching of free speech and expression: One is that if a person has a view that he or she knows would be “unpopular”, they would curtail expressing it even if it was a valid point, or may lead to an advantageous conclusion. And two, unpopular views, especially the ones considered vile, “obscene”, or even downright dangerous would just be driven underground, festering and unchallenged. At some point, social or political conditions would make those viewpoints ‘safe’ to surface again, and they would be unleashed with a vengeance, taking most of society completely by surprise.
The answer to hateful, vile, ‘disgusting’ or otherwise negative expression is MORE speech, NOT the curtailing of it! Censorship does not “protect” anybody. It doesn’t change a person’s heart, nor does it broaden a person’s mind. All it does is bury the “bad” and give people an EXTREMELY false sense of security. So… especially these days… we could use a few less people saying, “They shouldn’t be allowed to say that”, and a few more of the people who used to say, “I may not agree with what you say.. but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Yes, sometimes people can say some really hurtful, hateful and very scary things… But more often than not, what they don’t say is even scarier.