“We don’t have freedom of speech to talk about the weather. We have the first amendment to say very controversial things.” – Ron Paul
When freedom is tested, people have historically spoken out against those who wish to aggress upon their liberty, which is usually their own government. In many countries, such dissent is met with hostility that ranges from imprisonment to outright genocide. The United States, however, is supposedly a country where this freedom is respected and maintained. Trends in recent years would show otherwise, and it’s rather unnerving.
In 2012, dozens of people were arrested outside of the White House. Their crime? Kneeling and praying on Pennsylvania Avenue in protest of the Obamacare employer mandate for birth control. A peaceful protest quickly turned into a mass kidnapping by Capitol Police. Politicians will say that protestors should have applied for a permit to exercise their right.
Last time I checked, natural rights don’t require a permit.
According to the National Park Service, exercising your freedom only requires a few minor inconveniences. First, applicants must complete a permit that requires a slew of personal information about the individual and/or organization. If enough people want to protest the government, you must complete an entirely different permit.
The NPS may question your legitimacy and “invite” you to appear in front of a permit review board. A “review board” sounds like political theater to decide who will be censored. Government officials say permitting is required to uphold public order. If you are worried about public order, then don’t pass laws that result in violent backlash.
Protesters are not the only ones facing government aggression. Rapper Brandon Duncan (aka Tiny Doo) faces life in prison for nine counts of “criminal street gang conspiracy”. According to the San Diego DA’s office, Duncan was charged because his rap lyrics benefit criminal activity. Prosecutor Dana Greisen stated that rap music is “just another form of communication that gang members use”. Of course, Greisen could never acknowledge the possibility that Duncan’s lyrics express the reality of abject poverty. I wonder if she plans on crusading against the entire industry.
In more recent news, an Oklahoma University fraternity went viral after a video of their racist chant was leaked. They are obviously horrible people, but freedom isn’t always easy. University President David Boren quickly expelled the students. Of course, a superstar running back convicted of breaking a girl’s face still attends the school and plays for the team. I guess feelings are more important than her facial structure.
Oklahoma is a public school, which means they must abide by the Constitution and subsequent legal rulings. The national fraternity, a private organization, could revoke the charter on the grounds of freedom to associate, which would be a welcomed act.
In legal terms, are Tiny Doo and the fraternity members protected by the Constitution? In short, yes. Major court rulings defend the right to free speech no matter how abhorrent the words.
In Cohen vs. California, a court decision confirmed that the First Amendment protects speech that insinuates or advocates violent behavior. Why? The speech must have the intent to “incite an immediate breech of peace that directly endangers a specific person or group”. Rap lyrics and racist chants hardly incite immediate violence, nor do I think either had clear intent to that end.
In Terminiello v. Chicago, the court ruled that the First Amendment protected a priest conducting racist hate speech in his sermons and public demonstrations. The same precedent was used to protect civil rights protestors of the 1960s.
Snyder v. Phelps (2011) also upheld hate speech as protected by the First Amendment. Chief Justice John Roberts affirmed that hate speech legal precedents protected Westboro Baptist Church when they picketed military funerals. No one likes WBC, but, as Roberts’s opined, “the church members had the right to be where they were”.
There are, however, reasonable limits on speech also upheld by court decisions. For example, it is illegal to shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater. Unlike aforementioned cases, this presents a clear and direct threat to public order.
Censorship now proliferates in the United States despite numerous court rulings to the contrary. Government uses permits under the guise of “social order” to censor dissenters. Universities meant to breed free thinking individuals have, on multiple occasions, used their heavy-handed bureaucracies to censor ideas and demonstrations.
Freedom isn’t always easy, but it must be defended on principled grounds. If freedom of speech is not upheld to an absolute standard, we will find ourselves in the land of the censored.