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The Politics of Free Speech

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The First Amendment to the Constitution is one of the most foundational pieces of legislation and succinctly outlines key freedoms that belong to each and every American. As a corollary, it is also one of the most debated and interpreted collections of words and ideas that have ever been put to paper (or parchment). Since few writers or commentators ever bother actually quoting the Amendment itself when discussing it, I quote it here in full: “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 of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

While it is usually the “establishment clause” (the religion phrase of the Amendment) that is dealt with on this website, I would like to take a look at the “freedom of speech, or of the press” clause in this short article. Several recent events have brought this fundamental right to the forefront yet again and it is very interesting to watch how the media has responded. The tasering of University of Florida student Andrew Meyer has elicited a response from both sides of the political fence, but most strongly from the left. Since Meyer has been apportioned as something of a Bush-basher—based on the content of his questions to guest speaker John Kerry, before his microphone was turned off and campus security juiced him—he has become like a hero to the liberal media; a martyr for their First Amendment cause. In fact, the student newspaper at Colorado State University has gotten its own share of the spotlight because of an “editorial” that it ran in response to the Meyer incident. The CSU editorial was meant to push the limits of the “free speech” clause and was indeed successful in its goal. Bloggers and editorialists alike have taken the cue from the CSU paper to exploit these incidents as further indicators of an ever-increasing top-down police-state. And while this may have a hint of truth to it, the anti-Bush conspiracy crowd is completely missing the big picture.

Although, the First Amendment guarantees your right to speak your mind, it has always been understood to include certain parameters. The classic example of not yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is a great example of how the First Amendment does not grant carte blanche to say anything you want, whenever or wherever you want. But this is exactly the “straw-man” argument that is being put forward by the conspiracy hounds. No one is questioning the right of Andrew Meyer to ask his questions or the CSU paper to print their editorial, but what is being questioned is the appropriateness of the setting in which they chose to exercise their First Amendment rights. In both cases their goal was shock-value, not rational discourse.

It is rather perplexing however, why these First Amendment-loving, conspiracy-mongering proponents of free speech have not been speaking up in other areas. Where were they when the government recently decided to ban certain “religious” books within the federal prison system?[1] Where were they in 1993, during the so-called “Water Buffalo Affair;”[2] when the media hung Eden Jacobowitz out to dry? Jacobowitz’s right to free speech ended when he offended the sensibilities of the left-leaning media elite. Examples could be multiplied, but the point is the same. The freedom of speech is a right that allows both popular and unpopular views to have equal access to the boardroom of ideas. The conspiracy crowds—on the left and the right—are missing the point when they decry the abuse of the freedom of speech. It is this very right that they are exercising when they make such claims, thereby substantiating the need for it. If there really was, as Hillary Clinton famously declared, a “vast right-wing conspiracy” operating behind the scenes, we would never be able to expose it. The very first thing a conspiracy would need to do is control the information, and the fact that we are able to discuss and hear arguments from both sides of the issue disproves the conspiracy theory at the outset. If Andrew Meyer and the CSU newspaper are indeed indicators of a grand White House-inspired clampdown on civil liberties, then we never would have heard about these incidents in the first place. Since we must already have the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment in order to argue that they are possibly being trampled on, a conspiracy to eliminate them is never actually possible.

[1] See Marvin Olasky, “Startling Standards,” WORLD Magazine, September 29, 2007, 40. Apparently this is being overturned, no thanks to the mainstream “free speech” media.[2] See Kors and Silverglate, The Shadow University (New York: The Free Press, 1998), for an in-depth discussion of this case.

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