Abhorrent Speech is Still Free Speech

When it comes to the First Amendment, I’m a fundamentalist. First, I believe all other constitutional rights flow from the First. For example, you can’t have a Second Amendment without the First. Freedom of speech has to be fair and truly free for the gun opposition to debate their points and for the NRA to debate theirs. Without that back and forth, neither side could bring out valid points they each have. Laws without debate come out more flawed.

Second, for speech to be truly free it has to be unencumbered. There’s nothing in the First Amendment about speech not being stupid. People will do and say many things I think are outrageous, but that’s my opinion, not a certifiable fact. There is no easy way to determine what is truly over the top vs. just ignorant or offensive.

A local Tea Party group has a parade float depicting an Obama effigy wielding a whip against a prostrate figure known as “future taxpayer”. Not surprisingly, many have condemned it as hateful, racist speech. As someone who finds almost every stance by the Tea Party abhorrent, I tend to agree. However, I’m not sure my opinion would be different, even if someone else were sponsoring it.

It’s About Accountability?
The head of the group that sponsors the float said, “It’s ridiculous when people say it is racism. It has nothing to do with that. We need accountability.” In fact, the local NAACP agrees, “A lot of people will see it in different ways. I don’t see it as being racist.”

I’m not sure how the float makes anyone accountable, so I’m, perhaps, not as forgiving as the local NAACP. But, it doesn’t really matter whether I think its racist. As the NAACP spokesperson said, viva la difference. Whether it is racist depends on your opinion, not on what I think.

But don’t be surprised if someone attacks you as a racist when you’re on thin ice, which is where the floaters seem to be. It’s their opinion and both sides have free rhetorical reign to swing away.

Or, take the recent apology from the Portland, ME Press Herald for a front page, upbeat story on Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan – coming this year on 9/11. Tempers flared. One reader commented, “I don’t want to here [sic] how caring the Muslim religion is on 9/11.”

Fair enough, but I’d wager Muslims are pretty sic [sic] of hearing about Muslim mosques supposedly from hell filled with people no value for human life.

Gutless Apology
The paper took a rather gutless approach, I think, by apologizing for not presenting a story showing the opposing view. Not everything requires an opposing view and no one is obliged to offer one. That’s why some people watch Fox and others watch MSNBC. Not only do those “news” outlets not present opposing views, they frequently and vociferously shut them down whenever possible. Besides, I’d wager the Mainiac reader would’ve been just as offended by the Muslim view, even if a Christian view appeared directly alongside.

As for lies, it’s a tough call – that’s why slander and libel suits are notoriously hard to win. Most cases of this type aren’t about truth and falsehood, but the wide band of subjective truthiness that fills the gulf between them. One person’s “fact” is another’s “opinion” and inconclusively determining where a lie came from is damnably hard. Admissibility tends to default to “free” in the truest form of the word. This is as it should be.

Holding a fundamentalist view of the First is sometimes a retching, clothes pin-on-the-nose  job. You find yourself defending people who can and do say the most crapweaselish things, but even the crapweasels deserve their day. They deserve it because if we limit them today, someone will eventually come along to limit us tomorrow. The day we prohibit abhorrent speech is the day we can kiss the rest of your freedoms goodbye.

Kiss very freely, you understand.

Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks! Stop by for a video of the float described above.




Tags: First Amendment, Politics, Portland Press Herald, Ramadan celebration, Tea Party float, civil rights, Freedom of Speech, civil rights, Freedom of Speech (all tags)


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