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. -1st Amendment, Bill of Rights, Constitution of the United States
Speech can often be ferocious, ruthless or merely political speech with which we disagree. But whenever one starts to think that they have the “Right” to block or prevent someone’s invitation to speak, one must ask: Who is the gatekeeper? Because once you allow someone to decide what’s acceptable speech and what’s not, you no longer have “free speech.” With few exceptions, there should be no restrictions on speech, public or otherwise.
One of the very first significant court cases to reach SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States), was Schenck v. the United States. During World War I, Charles Schenck mailed circulars to draftees in response to the Conscription Act. The circulars urged men to refuse to report for military service but advised only peaceful activities such as petitioning to repeal the Conscription Act. Schenck was charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act by “attempting to cause insubordination in the military and to obstruct recruitment.” Associate Justice Holmes, speaking for a unanimous Court, concluded that Schenck’s “speech” was not protected. Every act depends on the circumstances. “The question in every case is whether 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.” Circumstances which would normally be tolerated in normal times, would not be tolerated during a time of war (“Schenck v. United States.” 249US47)
Schenck mailed circulars to those subject to the draft. A labor-intensive project to be sure. Today, we have the internet or World Wide Web. I believe the internet to be the single most significant boost to free speech in the history of not only the United States but, to the world. Now we can express ourselves instantaneously to nearly anyone on the planet. Some see this as a good thing, while others (mostly governments) view this as an evil.
It is neither. People are good or evil. In April of 2017, a young blogger from Pakistan wrote on the subject of free speech. In her blog entitled, “Speak for your Civil Right,” she begins with this quote;
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – (George Orwell)
However, her argument becomes the antithesis of what you would expect. It is her view, especially when it comes to Social Media, free speech is only important to the point where your words offend. Then, in her words;
“Freedom of speech is not simply a freedom to think and say what you wish, but to speak for yourself, to speak from the heart, and to be accountable for your words.” And, “We need to give space to other people so that everyone has equal right to speak. So, we as human beings need to use freedom of speech in a positive way because it’s our duty to remove the negativity that people have in their minds by the power of speech. “
In a more recent SCOTUS case, R. A. V. v. St. Paul 505 U.S. 377 (1992), the Court reinforced the boundaries under which municipal and state governments must operate. The St. Paul, Minnesota, Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance, which prohibits the display of a symbol which one knows or has reason to know “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.”
In this case, several teenagers allegedly burned a crudely fashioned cross on a black family’s lawn. The police charged one of the teens under a local bias-motivated criminal ordinance which prohibits the display of a symbol which “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.”
After being dismissed at the local trial court level, the Supreme Court of the State of Minnesota appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which held, “…The ordinance, even as narrowly construed by the State Supreme Court, is facially unconstitutional because it imposes special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on the disfavored subjects of “race, color, creed, religion or gender.” At the same time, it permits displays containing abusive invective if they are not addressed to those topics. Moreover, in its practical operation, the ordinance goes beyond mere content, to an actual viewpoint, discrimination.”
It is my belief that Freedom of Speech as codified within Our National (and State) Constitution, is the foundation on which all other 1st Amendment freedoms are based. Without it, the other freedoms listed would be meaningless. The purpose of free speech is to protect the often unpopular, viewpoints from being overruled by the majority, or by our own government. While we cannot scream “fire!!” in the middle of a movie theater endangering public safety, the minority or unpopular opinions regardless of the form they take must be heard as they may shape political and social outcomes in the long run.
In other words, the First Amendment isn’t there to protect flowery speech upon which there is no disagreement, but that speech which offends and defines the very debates that shape not just our time, but also future times to come.