Episode 36 – Is Our Right to Free Speech Under Threat?

Welcome Friends, Neighbors and people everywhere. This is your host, Michael Nunes.

Welcome to the Thirty-Sixth episode of my podcast, The Power of Three. I want to help show you how harnessing the Power of Three can lead to a more fulfilling life, a life that celebrates our differences and our similarities, and accepts that we are part of the great web of life.

In this episode, I will discuss why I believe that our Right to free speech is under threat. The current president suggests that he wants new laws to limit free speech. In his words, he says that it is “disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it.”

I believe that the right to free speech as proclaimed in the Bill of Rights is the single most important part of the Constitution. That single amendment guarantees almost every right that Americans hold dear. Nothing is more important to our freedom. Nothing guarantees the rights of minorities more than free speech. Nothing makes America the nation it is more than the First Amendment.

The President has made similar statements about free speech since he began his campaign. He repeatedly attacked professional football players for kneeling during the national anthem. He has introduced edicts banning travel from Muslim countries. He wants to imprison people who burn the flag. He has blocked Twitter users with whom he disagrees. He wants to go after people who share embarrassing information about him and his administration. He repeatedly called journalists the enemy of the people and suggested changes to libel laws to enable people to sue news organizations. What is worse is that the President has encouraged violence against protesters, and the press, at his rallies and offered to pay the legal expenses of supporters who assaulted protesters.

When the President took the oath of office, he promised, as every president elect does, to uphold the Constitution. That includes the first amendment right to free speech. That he has repeatedly attacked that amendment is clearly a violation of his oath of office. In my mind, that should disqualify him from the presidency.

In preparing for this episode, I am reading a number of articles on free speech from a variety of sources, including the Cato Institute, a Libertarian organization, and the ACLU, which fights to defend the Constitution. I was a member of the ACLU for a number of years, because I believe in what they stand for. I gave up my membership when they supported Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. I do not believe that the Second Amendment gives the right to murder unarmed civilians. People may say that I was being hypocritical. I don’t believe so. I still read their articles and support what they do.

The ACLU has defended some of the most distasteful organizations in the United States. This includes the KKK, misogynists, online haters and a wide array of people with toxic views. I absolutely applaud what the ACLU does, even if I disagree with those organizations. An open expression of opinions is the foundation stone of this democracy.

However, I do believe that there are limits, as there are with any right. Deliberately inciting violence is one of them. You can prevent people from encouraging others to commit acts of violence, or theft of property. As with so many things, government needs to tread very carefully with this one.

The U.S. government has a history of denying people the right to free expression of ideas. Back in the civil rights era, thousands of African Americans went to jail for protesting against segregation and the deprivation of voting rights. The governments of mostly southern states introduced injunctions against protesting. They then arrested protesters on that basis. Laws were passed prohibiting parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing. Even handing out leaflets encouraging voter drives was prosecuted as distributing literature without a permit. One activist was charged with statements calculated to breach the peace when he speculated that a fire that destroyed several black businesses was a bungled act of arson against a civil rights organization. These are all clear violations of the First Amendment right to free speech.

A particularly egregious case occurred in Montgomery, Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights era. A group of supports of Martin Luther King took out an ad in the New York Times criticizing the Montgomery police department. The department filed a defamation suit against top civil rights activists. The courts ruled in favor of the department, allowing them to seize personal property including vehicles and land. This forced many of them to move out of the South. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the activists, but only after many of them had been ruined financially.

This is the kind of government overreach that marked so much of the Civil Rights era. It is happening again today with the unwarranted attacks on the press by the president and many of his acolytes. Today, police charge protesters with disturbing the peace, or any activity that angers police officers. Many states are trying to criminalize dissent. This is the kind of harassment against which every freedom loving citizen should fight.

Some people might say, but what about speech you find personally offensive? Should that be abridged? There are some narrow examples of speech that should be abridged. On the whole, even the most offensive speech should be permitted. When Milo Yiannopolis wanted to give a speech at Berkely University, he was effectively prevented from doing so. I believe that was a mistake. Universities should be places in which people can air their opinions openly. There are ways to protest if you do not agree. Protest peacefully outside the venue, wave signs, or chant. You might even attend the speech and walk out in protest. Prohibiting that protest undermines the right to free speech.

The First Amendment does not guarantee the right to impose speech on others. People like Yiannopolis, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh offer speech that is just offensive. There is no obligation to sit around being insulted by anyone. That does not imply hypocrisy. I have tried reading Ann Coulters writing and I fail to see why I should continue reading after being insulted in every sentence. The same goes for people like Rush Limbaugh, who makes a career out of bashing liberals.

I grew up in South Africa under apartheid. The nationalist government imposed strict censorship laws on speech. These laws went to ridiculous lengths to suppress speech, especially speech that discussed race relations. They went so far as to ban “Black Beauty”, a child’s story about a horse, because it might be inflammatory. Newspapers were shut down, articles were banned and newspaper editors were jailed or exiled. My fear is that the United States is entering a similar era, one in which any criticism is seen as incendiary or even seditious.

Like so many rights and privileges, I believe that the First Amendment should be treated with respect. Respect a person’s right to dissent, to protest, to worship in the way he or she feels fit. It does not infer the right to impose speech on others. Imposing prayer in schools, for instance, or religious quotations on government grounds. I find the inclusion of the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to violate my religious freedom. It is unwarranted government intrusion on my freedom to worship or not worship.

Free speech is there to protect the weak, the powerless, minorities and people traditionally targeted for oppression. Protest is not a riot; it is the ultimate expression of freedom. It is the freedom to express ourselves as we wish. It is the freedom to call out government on its excesses. It is the freedom to challenge the fitness of law enforcement, of Congress or of a President. It is the right to freedom from oppression.

We need a Congress, and a President, and a press to affirm our right to free speech, to free exercise of religion, to protest and to petition our government. Imagine if podcasts like this one vanished into history. Imagine if our voice was silenced. Imagine the end of freedom.

I encourage you to continue to enhance your life with the Power of Three and search for the best possible life to live.

Until next time, go well my friends.

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