Every week on Monday, the WoW! community and our invited guests weigh in at the Watcher’s Forum, short takes on a major issue of the day, the culture, or daily living. This week’s question: Are There Limits On Free Speech? Should There be?
Michael McDaniel: There are, of course, limits on free speech, the classic “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” being the most obvious example. Theoretically, obscenity may be criminalized, though in practice, it seldom is. After all, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously noted in an obscenity case (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964) he couldn’t describe it, but he knew it when he saw it. The Supreme Court has also decided exotic dancing, because it is a form of artistic expression, deserves the protection of the First Amendment. Apparently they’ve seen it, and that wasn’t it.
Therein lies much of the difficulty in proscribing speech. For any law to be constitutional, the reasonable man must be able to read it, and understand what is and is not unlawful. If one cannot gaze upon a given nude body, or a given sexual act without confusion about whether it is obscene, and therefore unlawful, or merely an expression of free speech, life becomes even more confusing than ever.
Clearly child pornography is beyond the pale, yet before the advent of digital photography, parents sending negatives of their children playing in a bathtub to the developer sometimes found themselves accused of child porn. Now, one must worry about the intrusion of cyber cops into their electronic devices. Will they think similar digital photos evidence of child porn? Will they seize my computers, throw me in prison, force me to deplete my bank accounts and retirement to defend myself against unwarranted and false charges?
I do not defend, for a moment, what is clearly the sexual exploitation of children. I merely point out the difficulty in applying a single, often politicized, standard to that which is hardly black and white.
Political speech deserves the greatest protection under the Constitution, yet it is precisely that which Democrats–and some Republicans–wish to restrict. They wanted to make criticizing Hillary Clinton unlawful. They wished to make criticizing any politician during election season a crime. Many still wish it.
And one cannot forget Academia, where the idea that unpopular speakers may not only be preemptively shut up, if they dare try to exercise their First Amendment rights, they may be–must be–physically attacked. This is not only the stance of lunatic special snowflakes, but the spineless administrators, and state politicians that aid and abet such insanity. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me,” is an axiom lost on such people, who believe the mere existence of words with which they disagree harmful, and they’ll be delighted to use the sticks and stones on anyone they don’t like.
The First Amendment like the Second, is the backbone of our society. Both establish and uphold the rule of law, where everyone can reasonably understand the limits of discourse and behavior. But civilization is a matter of informed consent and willing participation. Those seeking to limit the First Amendment, if they move beyond mere words, force us toward the exercise of the Second.
Any limitation on fundamental rights must be narrowly drawn and so simple as to be understood by the proverbial reasonable man. The antidote for “bad” speech, is good speech, and plenty of it. To do otherwise is to abandon civilized persuasion and reason in favor of brute force.
That’s precisely what the many–and growing in number–enemies of liberty, of America and Americans, seek. Many of them are too stupid, too unschooled in history and human nature, to understand the danger of the precipice to which they push us. Their leaders, however, understand precisely what they’re doing. They may well force us to abandon words, and rely instead on the Second Amendment. The pen is mightier than the sword only in a society wherein liberty and civilized discourse–free speech–reign. God help us all when that is no longer true in America.
Fausta Rodriquez Wertz: No limits.
Don Surber: Answer: No.
Rob Miller: I have to honestly confess myself perplexed on this one. In the America I grew up in, what was considered free speech was pretty well defined and the standard was relatively universal, based on the old Supreme Court ‘fire in a crowded theater’ definition.Neither is true anymore and in my opinion it is mostly the Left that has deliberately bastardized the concept.
What we have now is a situation where what constitutes free speech basically depends on whose talking and where. If you’re on most of America’s campuses, speech that is openly racist, disparages males, talks about assassinating the president or in some cases borderline incites violence against ‘Republicans’ or other select groups is considered free speech, while having someone like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray et al speak by invitation on a college campus is not considered free speech at all, but something to be suppressed by any means necessary.
The same thing occurs almost daily in our public media and discourse. Someone like Bill Maher can gleefully accuse the president of the United States of incest with his own daughter, or a Stephen Corbet can lunch an obscene hateful rant from the safety of the CBS studios. Someone like Hasan Minhaj can attack the president viciously far beyond any pretense of a roast and call Steve Bannon a Nazi and it passes for protected speech and ‘comedy.’ Mention that Minhaj avidly supports Islamist Muslim Brotherhood front groups like CAIR and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) is apparently ‘racist’ beyond the pale and in need of suppression, at least according to the Left. And in fact, the Left does it’s very best to suppress any realistic discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist fascism on the channels of communication it controls.
In 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court established the doctrine by a 9–0 decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. It held that “insulting or ‘fighting words,’ those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are among the “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of [which] … have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.”
In that case, the fighting words were ‘fascist’ and ‘racketeer.’ What would happen if Steve Bannon (who is definitely not a Nazi) were to sue Minhaj for libel? Based on our current libel laws, it’s an open question. What if Bannon were to confront Minhaj and demand a public apology and when he didn’t receive one, knock Mihaj to the pavement? Again, an open question. And in Bannon’s case, the position he holds in the Trump Administration pretty much precludes himfrom taking any action at all, something Minhaj in certainly aware of.
The First Amendment obviously only applies to certain people. And I don’t think that’s what our Founders intended.
I’m not really sure how we fix this. We could loosen up and redefine the libel laws, but we run the risk of the cure being worse than the disease, as much as I’d like to see certain people get the pants sued off them. or we could wait for a case to amble its way to the Supreme Court (assuming they even agree to hear it) and hope for new guidelines that enforce the same tolerance on everyone. But given that there are now plenty of people wearing judicial robes out there whom are perfectly happy with the abuse of our First Amendment (including on our Supreme Court) depending on the politics and who the plaintiff is, that’s essentially a coin toss.
Doug Hagin: Outside of libel? No.
Laura Rambeau Lee: Over the past several decades we have seen our First Amendment right to free speech become more restricted through a progressive campaign of political correctness. The left has deemed certain words and expressing certain beliefs as “offensive” and those who speak the truth are often attacked verbally and called racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, etc. Progressives know very well how destructive these labels can be and use them effectively to silence their opposition.
Today we are seeing the Antifa movement seeking to curtail the free speech of those with whom they disagree. These self-labeled anti-fascists are actually anti-First Amendment groups who are growing more violent and disruptive across the country. Their only purpose is to create chaos and widen the chasm of divisiveness the left has created in our country. Incitement to violence is not free speech, just as rioting and destroying private property or blocking traffic and businesses cannot be considered peaceably assembling or justifiably expressing grievances.
Speech itself should remain unlimited except for the common sense “don’t yell fire in a crowded theater” type of speech. While we may disagree with what someone says or even find it offensive, we must respect a person’s right to say it. But as with so many of our inherent rights we have to accept responsibility for our words and actions. Violent protesters and those who destroy property must be held accountable and punished for these crimes. This cannot be permitted and protected as free speech. The rule of law must be upheld and applied equally to all individuals.
The left must understand what free speech truly is and what it means to speak freely in a free society. We cannot allow them to dictate what viewpoints can or cannot be expressed. Tolerance goes both ways. Individuals in our society must be able to speak freely without fear of personal attack or injury by those who disagree with them. It is up to our elected officials and our law enforcement officers to assure that all of our rights are protected.
Well, there it is!
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