With freedom of speech, comes great responsibility
“Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” These words can not be more straight forward; their implications can not be understated or abridged in any fashion. These ten words, clearly penned in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, make America the epicenter of freedom, but they have recently been manipulated to make America the catalyst for unjust hate. How many children have you heard spout something disrespectful, troubling, or wrong and then defend themselves with their kindergarten knowledge of U.S. history, “I have free speech, I can say what I want?" I personally used the excuse extensively when I was young and even today when I work with children, they are quick to become constitutional lawyers when they are silenced. I have come to expect children to use the basic knowledge of what is at their disposal to defend themselves when they are wrong, they don’t know any better. My expectations as of late have changed though. I now sadly expect adults to do much of the same.
Most Americans think that their free speech is absolute. But would they think it so absolute if someone were to verbally and openly support a known terror network, publicly announce plans to assassinate the president, or simply scream “fire” in a crowded theater?
The 1919 Supreme Court case of Schenck vs. United States set forth what today has been the ultimate test for free speech. Justice Oliver Holmes wrote in the courts final unanimous decision: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” He went on further to state: “The words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”
When President Obama got in front of most world leaders at the U.N. general assembly on September 25th he stated, “Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”
Obama was stringent to defend an absolute ideal of free speech and to persuade other world leaders to understand its importance. This was quite a gaffe however, because the consequences of the tools of restriction Obama was referencing seem to be more at play with this utopist ideal of free speech in action than if it were restricted. Complete free speech today in America is being used to silence critics and to oppress minorities more than basic restrictions to the amendment ever would.
Take a look at The Tea Party’s Facebook homepage, with almost a million “likes.” It is rampant with examples of free speakers voicing their opinions on Muslim minorities. Most of these opinions act as mufflers of truth and instigate oppression as well as hate.
Take more influential persons like Illinois Congressmen Joe Walsh, or Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann. Bachmann has perpetuated hate speech towards Muslims extensively and Joe Walsh earlier this summer verged on a call to arms for people to rise up against Muslims. His speech demonizing the minority was followed by two weeks of extensive hate crimes against Muslims within miles of where he made his initial comments. If Walsh’s comments don’t fulfill Holmes' “fire in a crowded theater” analogy, I am not quite sure what does.
The most prominent example today however is not the ignorant comments of some outspoken politicians but “The Innocence of Muslims” YouTube video. Many Americans have denounced the protests across the Arab world as absurd due to the fact that in America the video is acceptable.
Not touching on the obvious problem that Americans will jump to defend the video as free speech but denounce the free speech of the protesters as unnecessary, one needs to address the merits of the video as it measures on the “Holmes Standard.” One of the videos supporters, Steve Klein, said in a recent interview with Tony Harris of Al Jazeera that the video was absolutely intended to be “provocative."
This acknowledgment coupled with the outcome of other anti-Islam actions in the past, like the Quran burnings and subsequent deaths earlier this year, shows that the creators of this video had intentions beyond just enforcing their First Amendment rights. Anti-Islam proponents took it a step further when the video did not have enough immediate impact. They resolved to send it to reporters in the U.S., Egypt and elsewhere in a last ditch effort to yell “fire.”
The final question then becomes not whether or not this video is in violation of U.S. law, but why the American public has so fervently defended its right to be shown. To this end, can it be said that Obama’s defense of free speech on the world’s stage is just a further defense of Americas contagious Islamophobia?
Rahm Emmanuel’s backing earlier this summer of Alderman Joe Moreno’s blocking of a Chick-fil-A in his neighborhood due to homophobic comments made by the company’s CEO brings into question the rights of free speech. National headlines took to the story, most making a mockery of a burger standing for more than just a meal, but as of now, the Chick-fil-A is still blocked, even after the company stopped making donations to “anti-gay” groups as a compromise to Alderman Moreno.
Why didn’t Obama step onto the world stage in July and speak out against his close friend and former chief of staff's anti-free speech statements? Why didn’t the nation chastise Moreno and Emmanuel for trying to tread on First Amendment rights?
These questions aren’t easy to answer, and the realities they infer are scary at best. It seems today that free speech is reserved only for those speaking out in order to silence and oppress Muslims. Try to suppress any other “free speech” of any other major group of people and it will be seen as a travesty that deserves global condemnation.
As much as free speech needs to be respected and upheld, it also needs to be checked on an even playing field. Instigating violence and allowing innocent deaths and injuries to take place is never acceptable as Justice Holmes once explained. America’s founding texts serve as a pinnacle of freedom, but they must never be manipulated to control and destroy the sanctity of human life.