Friday, January 13, 2012

The Lie: The First Ammendment Entitles You to Say Whatever You Want With No Consequence

"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."

Words are very powerful tools. In a lot of ways more powerful than guns and bombs. Words plant ideas. Words cause harm. Words leave scars. Words can build people up and tear them down. Words can erase pain and cause it. Words cannot be taken back. Always keep that in mind when you use words. Always make sure you have thought through the gravity of your words.

My favorite college class session of all time was my very first one. I had Dr. Larry Burriss for an honors section of Intro to Mass Communication. By all accounts it appeared to be a dull class. Then he opens up with the question, "What does the First Amendment mean?" Everyone kind of looked at each other and one brave soul says, "Freedom of speech." He says, "Ok, what does THAT mean." Someone else chimes in with, "You can say whatever you want." This is exactly what he was waiting to hear. For the next 5 minutes he goes on a tirade of separating the class by every racial slur, offensive name calling, and rude category of person you can think of (and some you can't). At the end he says, "If I didn't touch on your particular group, don't worry, I will get you next class. I am an equal opportunity offender." We of course just stare at him with huge eyes and mouths agape. Perfectly executed. Complete silence. Then Dr. Burriss says, "so, do you still think you can say whatever you want?"

What followed was an incredibly thoughtful, well mediated discussion on the First Amendment and what it really means to have "freedom of speech." I never looked at it the same again.

Many of you may have seen the discussion on my Facebook page on Sunday. That incident is the catalyst for this blog post. Here's the gist of what happened. After Church I got home and logged into Facebook. Jonas was in the room right next to me. As soon as I logged in, the second post in my "newsfeed" was a JPEG image of text. The text was supposed to be some "instructions" to men on how to properly satisfy their women. It was incredibly vulgar with a plethora of "F words" and some other vulgarities. Normally, I just ignore those types of posts (though I have never seen one on FB that was that vulgar). For whatever reason though, I started to read the comments. First, the post I was reading was actually a "share" that my friend had done from one of his friend's pages. The very first comment was basically saying that the post was way over the line. What ensued was a barrage of "freedom of speech!", "if you don't like it don't read it!", etc. Though I normally agree with those sentiments, I take exception to public forums. In other words, if I am walking in a park and someone with a bull horn is shouting those types of things, I would get riled up. In that setting, I do not have the option to "not listen". Same goes for Facebook in a lot of ways. It is an online public park with everyone shouting whatever is going on in their little corner of the universe. It also happens to be one where the more attention you get, the longer that shout stays in front of everyone. It also happens to be one where the only way you ignore something is after you have already taken it in. THIS is what motivated me to very nicely explain that freedom of speech isn't as cut and dry as the commenters were trying to make it. Then it got out of hand.

I am typically a pretty savvy guy when it comes to technology. That said, Facebook is constantly evolving, constantly changing the way you interact. If you don't truly stay on top of every little change, the technology can easily get away from you. This is what happened to me on Sunday. My comment, though trying to be a lesson in civility and trying to help a young man better understand good taste, tact and community, ended up splashing the offensive "picture" on all of my friends' (over 1000) news feed. Thankfully, Stephanie Wright alerted me to this incredible lapse of knowledge and I started damage control. My wife finished the damage control by making my comment go away but not before numerous people saw it and commented on my apology post. I am sure that many others saw it and did not comment. I was, and still am, very embarrassed to have shared that with so many others. That said, it did give me the inspiration for this particular blog (that is two days late because of all the stuff I wanted to include).

The First Amendment DOES NOT Mean You Can Say Whatever You Want With No Consequence

Many, many people have a misconception about what the First Amendment does and does not do. It only says that (and I am paraphrasing) Congress shall not abridge the freedom of speech. This simply means that the government, specifically Congress cannot pass laws making it illegal for you to say what you want to say. There is no constitutional protection from your peers, from other authorities, from the general public, etc. Let's talk about some examples.

Let's pretend you go into a movie theater for the premiere of the next great movie and it is totally packed. You take a seat at the back of the theater and you take out your camera phone because you want to capture the next viral video. As everyone sits, you yell, "FIRE!!! SOMEONE SET THE CURTAIN ON FIRE!! (when in fact it is not)" Mass hysteria breaks out and everyone starts running for the door. Will you get in trouble? Yes probably. In Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 the commentary (the actual cliche comes from 1917 case) the rule is that the first amendment does not protect speech that is meant to and likely will incite imminent lawless action (riots) or that is reasonably believed to cause malicious actions (like stampeding out of the theater).

Let's pretend now that you are on Facebook or in front of a group of people or you tweet that you have devised a plan to kill the president and will begin execution of said plan in 48 hours. What do you think will happen? At the very least you will get a visit from the Secret Service. There is ample evidence that you will get quite a bit more depending on the veracity of your claim and the way you deliver it. It could be as much as 3 years in jail and a $250,000 fine (its true, look it up).

But I though we had free speech? I was only joking when I said I wanted to assassinate the president. I was making a documentary when I yelled fire in that theater. The law does not protect all speech. And we didn't even look at censorship--truly limiting the speech to certain audiences.
Let's look now at some other ways free speech is not as free as you might think. Society is not bound by the same rules the government is. In other words, our culture at large can be very, very judgemental and even cruel. Three great examples come to mind immediately. Don Imus, Hank Williams Jr. and the Dixie Chicks were publicly berated because of stupid comments they made. They were not arrested, not jailed, not fined by the government. They probably didn't get visits from the Secret Service but man did the public rake them over the coals. Of course various people called for punishments and various others said it was "free speech". In fact, both sides are wrong. The only punishment that is due someone in those situations is exactly the punishment they got--public reaction. Don Imus still has a radio show because enough people are entertained (or shocked) by his venom. Hank Jr. lost his job because the TV station was too afraid of the public backlash against his dumb comment. The Dixie Chicks were greatly harmed financially by that one stupid comment--but they weren't arrested. My point is this, we have freedom to say most things without oppression from the government. We do not have free reign to say whatever we want with absolutely no repercussions. Think about that the next time you are so quick to shout, "free speech, free speech"!!!!!

1 comment:

Cynthia W. Harmon said...

Agree! Great Post Jonathan

Post a Comment