Freedom of Speech
[by Mitch Trachtenberg]
Something seems to have gone seriously wrong with our understanding of freedom of speech. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution has this to say:
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.
It protects Americans from attempts by the government to silence us, or to tell us how to think. It specifically protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
Some seem to think that “freedom of speech” means “speech free from consequences,” or, perhaps, “it’s all good.”
It’s not all good.
If I run a shop and choose to post a sign saying “No Chinese or Dogs Allowed,” that may or may not be legal. But even if it’s legal, I can expect that decent people will not patronize my store, and may protest in front of it, exercising their freedom of speech. Chinese-haters, and those who simply don’t care, may continue to patronize my store, but people who believe prejudice is wrong and are willing to act on their beliefs will shop elsewhere, and will urge everyone else to shop elsewhere. That’s what a protest in front of the store is: it is urging people to shop elsewhere, because the store owner’s activity is repugnant.
The line between free speech and harassment is drawn when a protester actually prevents someone from entering the store; having a picket line or another form of protest is exactly what the first amendment protects.
The same applies to music. Many people try to compare the murder music of musicians like Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, and Capleton with other bands that play cruel music. But, while there are lots of songs talking about people abusing other people, there aren’t many well-known acts (are there any?) that actually call for the murder of people because of their race, sex, religion… anything but sexual orientation. But these murder music acts URGE people to hang gays, to throw acid in our faces, to get out the automatic weapons, and to not call police to help gays who are attacked.
To say, “it’s all good, I won’t attend but I won’t complain” is not supporting “freedom of speech.” It is abdicating the responsibilities that freedom of speech imposes on a free people.
Most people, if they are honest with themselves, would be outraged if a bar in Eureka booked an act that had called for the murder of black people, signed a document promising not to do it again, and was then recorded shouting epithets against black people. Most people would feel the same if it was done about Jews, or Japanese, or members of a tribe, or Muslims, or… well, really, just about anyone.
Most people would be offended. They’d protest. They’d complain to the bar’s owner. They might protest outside the bar. But they wouldn’t pretend that what the act did is OK, and that “it’s all good.”
It’s not all good.