“Speak Your Mind… It’s Your Right”
Many debates past and present have occurred over the foundation of free speech. The ability to argue a person’s opinion regardless of validity or volatility is a constitutional right afforded to every American regardless of race, religion, or country of origin. Within the borders of the United States every citizen has been afforded the undeniable right to voice his or her opinion. This basis has been the driving force in positive change, and remains the centerpiece for the evolution of freedom in our country. This basis has been the case for so long that many Americans don’t realize these rights are not always permitted outside U.S. borders. Hate speech, crude speech, documentary speech, media speech, all have protections under the First Amendment. In recent years, though, the debate has been widely televised and is a constant topic of discussion. In the current climate of societal and political discourse, with free speech being heavily assaulted, we must take the opportunity to evaluate the standings of free speech laws and decide if the slippery slope of restriction is really a path that improves the culture so many of us have grown up in. In this essay, the main purpose is to present information drawn from various sources past and present to ignite awareness as to how and why freedom of speech effects every citizen of the United States.
Before discussing the ramifications of laws regarding free speech I believe the Amendment that allows such speech should be recognized in its original form. As a people, we recognize the First Amendment as the inscription for free speech. However, there are other valuable tools described in this amendment that also integrate the necessity for the ability to speak freely. In what is known as the “Bill of Rights,” Amendment I can be found and reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therof; 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.
To recognize the entirety of the first amendment is crucial to American life. Each provision of the amendment intertwines with the next, as the following describes: In the establishment of religion, oftentimes evangelism plays an integral role in “spreading the word”. The ability to speak free of oppression helps perpetuate the existence of a congregation. The invitations and mediums such as pamphlets are used to promote attendance, but would not be permitted without the description of free speech. Freedom of the press has played an integral part in our nation’s history. Again, without the ability to use speech to report on misdeeds in government, or public alike, we as a nation would not have the ability to evaluate our elected officials as thoroughly. For example, the ability to report on the Watergate Scandal that implicated Richard Nixon’s wrongdoings. Another more recent example, the sexual escapades of Bill Clinton in the oval office, illuminating the kind of character the former president held. Furthermore, the most recent allegation of sexual misconduct of several sitting elected officials. This ability allows us to vote for an individual closest to our values with more information provided by credible sources aside from the political pandering of a potential elected official. Last but assuredly not least, the right of the people peacably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances has played an integral role in the evolution of civil rights. Without this, marches organized by Martin Luther King wouldn’t have been possible. Petitions to change laws regarding “colored people” would not have been possible. Again, tying into free speech, without the venue in which Dr. King spoke the “I Have a Dream” speech the vast audience it reached would not have been possible without the provisions stated in the first amendment.
Now that some insight has been given to the first amendment wording as it relates to recent historical event, the nature of the progression of public opinion comes into play. As societal standards are everchanging, the disruption of speech continues to be a “hot-button” debate. In many instances, these events have led to legal cases challenging the laws written. At minimum, the basis of what it is to speak freely has been questioned. The cases that have been heard in courts regarding free speech infringements are vast and have yielded different results. Several court cases have been ruled upon as to what is and is not covered under the right to free speech. Some court cases found on uscourts.gov confirming examples of free speech have included: Cohen v. California that confirmed the allowance of a person “To use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages”, Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman confirming a citizen’s right to “To engage in symbolic speech”, in acts such as “burning the flag in protest”, in addition the court case West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette that confirmed a student’s right “Not to speak (specifically, the right not to salute the flag).” While some of these decisions affirming such rights may seem disrespectful or disgraceful to many Americans, the ability to do so without governmental meddling or repercussion is an essential premise written in by our founding fathers. That being said, there are also several court cases displayed at uscourts.gov that give rulings in regard to what is not considered protected under the first amendment. Some other examples of these court cases include: Roth v. United States that concluded “To make or distribute obscene materials” is not protected, Morse v. Frederick ruling that free speech does not include the right “Of students to advocate illegal drug use at a school-sponsored event.” One major case used as an example, was the judgement in the court case Schenck v. United States (47) in 1919. This case became the foundation for restricting speech that incites violence. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. concluded in his opinion “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. […] 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.” (Holmes 47) This case has subsequently been cited in numerous other cases where incitation of violence through speech has been questioned.
Presently, the assault on free speech is happening across the country primarily on college campuses. The vast catalog of -isms and -phobias are being used as a call for arms against opposing opinions. Rhetoric spills throughout the hallways of campuses from students attempting to quell incoming speakers. In an age of Twitter and Facebook, a conservative Jewish Harvard educated Lawyer can incur insults that include conflicting meanings. Transphobic, xenophobic, misogynistic kike, Nazi, and numerous other shallow portrayals uttered in the same Twitter stream simply for holding an opposing conservative view. Often the absurdity of the ill-informed description can be mind-numbing. The importance of illuminating these rants is to objectify the hasty attempts to voice incorrect descriptions, meant to silence opposing viewpoints. Speaking openly and freely and allowing a citizen’s right to free speech should have an opportunity to take place. According to a gallop poll mentioned in the CNN article “War on campus: The escalating battle over college free speech” written by Senior Writer Eliott C. McLaughlin it is asserted that “Fifty four percent [of students] say the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.” While the number may seem mediocre, almost any percentage would be too high. Without the expression of free opinion, injustices cannot be faced, and prejudices cannot be expunged. At one point in the nation’s history the thought of integrated schools, bathrooms, and restaurants was considered offensive to a great number of people. If given the opportunity, a person could search history and would yield very little evidence to the ability for any civilization to have blossomed and evolved as quickly and efficiently as the United States has. This, I believe, has ultimately been due to the ability for an American to express new ideas and new ways of thinking, while also having the ability to address grievances and injustices publicly to spark debate amongst his or her fellow citizens and government.
Consequently, while we partake in our freedoms, something often overlooked is the broad liberties the United States offers. Although the world has gotten smaller with current technologies, and innovations in travel, the laws abroad have cultivated little interest to most Americans. If enticed, though, the quest for one to find differing laws takes a short journey. To locate examples of diminished open speech would only require looking to our friendly Canadian neighbors. Canadian law prohibits any speech stated publicly that could be considered hate speech, with possible imprisonment of two years for conviction under Criminal Code (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46) according to the Government of Canada Justice Laws Website. Seems reasonable, right? Except who is making the consideration of what “hate speech” is? The argument has been made and enacted that not regarding a person’s self-identified gender pronoun could be considered hate speech as put forth in bill “C-16” of the Ontario Human Rights Code according to Naveed Ahsan in his Fair Observer article “The Silencing of Jordan Peterson”. Essentially, the failure to agree with a person using pronouns other than derivatives of he or she can result in prosecution and subsequent imprisonment. It’s a bit of a scary thought to find out disagreeing with another person’s viewpoint publicly, regardless of the nature of disagreement, can result in imprisonment.
While the emotional and political debates on free speech continue to exist in the forefront of media coverage, the only hope is that it will be everlasting. With the opportunity to express opinions openly, social and political issues can be resolved in more constructive manners. It is with great desire I can champion that the continuation of freedom of speech, regardless of popular acceptance can continue to prosper and effect positive change in everyday American life. This is essential to the potential prosperity of each and every citizen of the United States and should be for generations to come. In this essay research has been presented, and I challenge any reader of this to draw your own conclusion, regardless of agreement or dissension. Doing so as an American Citizen, it is a fundamental right.
Ahsan, Naveed “The Silencing of Jordan Peterson”. Fair Observer: Make Sense of the World. Aug 30 2017. https://www.fairobserver.com/region/north_america/jordan-peterson- canada-transgender-rights-debate-news-51321/ . Accessed 11 Dec 2017
Criminal Code (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46). “Justice Laws Website”. Government of Canada. 2017 Nov 20. http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/section-319.html. Accessed 11 Dec 2017.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell. “Schenck v. United States 249 U.S. 47”. Opinion. Legal Information Institute. Accessed 9 December 2017.
McLaughlin, Eliott C. “War on Campus: Escalating Battle Over College Free Speech”. CNN.com. May 1, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/20/us/campus-free-speech- trnd/index.html.
“What Does Free Speech Mean?”. United States Courts. http://www.uscourts.gov/about- federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity- resources/what-does. Accessed Nov 26, 2017.