Free Speech

Everybody wants free speech. In general, we all have some vague, undefined feeling of what free speech really means, but everyone agrees that there are limits. The problem is that we all have different definitions of what those limits are or should be. There are several categories of this: art, oral language, written language, religion, and school.

Art: One of art’s jobs is to challenge conventional thinking. In that way, art is often considered offensive. If it wasn’t, we’d all just smile and say how nice the picture of the orange was. However, if I stand naked in my front lawn as an artistic demonstration of how protected I feel by my country, I would probably be arrested. Is that right? Would you agree with that? What if I made a huge fake flag and draped it on the floor and watched to see how many people would step on it? Is that ok? Where do you draw the line? Is that your personal preference, your religious preference, or something actually written in the constitution?

Speaking language: Should you be allowed to say anything you want? Can you yell fire in a crowded theatre? Can you express your religious thoughts at graduation if you are the valedictorian? Should you be able to spout profanity in public areas? Tell people what you think about the President? Can you talk about it in your workplace? What if you are a teacher? Is that ok? Where do you draw the line? Is that your personal preference, your religious preference, or something actually written in the constitution?

Written language: Writing in your diary is ok, right? What if you use a blog for your diary writing? What if you have an important public position and your diary writing reflects a bias? Should you be fired? Can you hang signs in a public work place if they have religious wording even if you don’t talk about it? Can you post signs with profanity that have some letters replaced by asterisks, such as F*CK THIS STREET? There’s nothing illegal about it. Is that ok? Where do you draw the line? Is that your personal preference, your religious preference, or something actually written in the constitution?

Religion: If you express your religious views in public, is that ok? What if you are a white supremacist and you are walking in a black neighborhood? Do you get what is coming to you, or are you well within your rights?  What exactly is the separation of church and state?  If I start a Christian finance company, can I only hire Christians to work for me?  If I have my class read Inherit the Wind, am I pushing my evolution beliefs on my students and telling them that the Bible is wrong just be teaching it? Is that ok? Where do you draw the line? Is that your personal preference, your religious preference, or something actually written in the constitution?

Schools:  High school students do not have as many rights as adults.  They cannot wear clothing the promotes drugs or alcohol.  Most schools have policies about dress codes, but they have a hard time being too specific.  I had a student who wore a shirt that read “I eat pink tacos.”  Is that offensive?  Only if you know what it means.  He was constantly distracting when he wore it to school, so the school told him he had to wear it inside out or go home and change.  If a girl is wearing a top that barely contains her chest, are we restricting her freedom of speech by asking her to put on another shirt, or do all of my male students miss today’s lesson because they are distracted? Another student tried to express his thoughts about Barack Obama by wearing a t-shirt.  Is that ok? Where do you draw the line? Is that your personal preference, your religious preference, or something actually written in the constitution?

The First Amendment reads “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 the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

To me, it seems that our founding fathers wanted to make sure that the government didn’t censor free speech, but we’ve now extended that down to businesses and schools.  The goal was to make sure that people are not discriminated against and given opportunity to express their thoughts, opinions, hopes, and dreams.  Without these laws, many would have stopped Martin Luther King, Jr. from giving his speeches.  The laws make sense.

But..

At what point, are the rights of the individual infringing on the rights of the many.  How do we know where to draw the line?  Can a line be drawn, or do we have to rely on personal judgment of those in authority like Justice Stewart who said, “I know it when I see it.”

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that as a teacher and a parent, I feel that my rights to NOT see and hear certain things has been taken away from me.  I want to be able to protect my children from things I find offensive.  Is that too much to ask? I love being able to speak my mind, but I feel that we might be going too far.  How do we bring it back to a reasonable level?  Or can we?

I am the language lover and these are my thoughts.

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4 Comments

  1. Scott Erb said,

    September 26, 2008 at 1:50 am

    Good post, those are dilemmas of the first amendment! I work at the place where the artist (ironically a conservative Republican from a military family) placed the flags (facsimiles of flags) on the floor. It was interesting how the faculty reacted. There was a heated debate, and it became clear that the response of faculty had less to do with their politics and more with their personal experience. Even far left faculty who had members in the military, especially if they died, were sometimes offended by the display, some of the more conservative members put freedom over the symbol of the flag. It really showed me that at one level the art project worked — it got us to think about how we relate to symbols, and showed how our personal meaning often trumps the abstract ideological arguments.

    Having kids aged 5 and 2, I find myself oddly not upset about the fact I can’t protect them from hearing and seeing things — I just use it to explain as best I can at their level. One of my best friends has children a bit older, and she is very concerned about the images. Politically she and I have similar perspectives, but our response to these kinds of dilemmas are different. All this makes me very modest in thinking that I really have any standing to think my view correct — it seems we make our calls from the gut (or if one wants to be poetic, the heart) rather than there being any right answer the head can figure out.

  2. renaissanceguy said,

    October 7, 2008 at 11:28 am

    I believe our current problem is that we no longer have a common ethic the way we used to in America. At one time it would have been unthinkable to put a sign with the word F*CK on your street. It would have been completely unthinkable to put flags (or facsimiles of flags) on the floor without literally calling for blood to spill. It would also have been unthinkable to BAN a teacher from mentioning God; on the contrary, teachers were expected to mention God in class. At that time, a teacher would have sent a kid home with complete immunity for wearing a nasty shirt or would have washed out a foul-mouthed kid’s mouth with soap.

    I know, I know. We’re more “diverse” now. Except I don’t think we are. There were all kinds of pockets of immigrants from all over the world 150 to 100 years ago. Yet they all had the same values–what they considered American values.

    We won’t be heading back to that any time soon. How we are going to live in harmony I don’t know. I wonder.

  3. renaissanceguy said,

    October 7, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Concerning schools and government. The courts, including the Supreme Court, have ruled that the public school system is an arm of the government. It has been a basis for many of their decisions, such as desegregation, school prayer, etc.

  4. October 7, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    I agree about the lack of common ethics. Today, we place more value on the individual than on the group, so often the rights of the few supersede the rights of the many. Or maybe we used to live in more “pockets” of society and today we’re more fully integrated, which causes problems. I’m not sure.

    You are right, of course, about the rulings regarding the schools being arms of the government. I struggle to call myself a government employee. However, that should actually strengthen the idea that you can’t wear or say whatever you want in a government building. Walk into the White House and say “I have a bomb.” See how far that gets you. Also, I believe there is a difference between a law and a rule or a policy.

    I often wonder if we’d actually have more rights if we limited the rights of what you could do or say in public.


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