Commentary: The freedom behind freedom of speech

The “First Amendment Defense Act” was surprisingly introduced in Congress last year. Odd, since an intrinsic freedom guaranteed from the Constitution’s opening phrases might be thought beyond threat. Driven perhaps by legitimate concerns – the role of political speech in religious communities, how to address the gender confused, and how to define so-called hate speech — are center stage in our cultural discussions. For some the solution is simple. Free speech must be regulated, especially when touching on personal feelings.

Yet consider a glaring, double standard. When a rapper applies the “B” word to women, no one blinks — free speech, though untold numbers are degraded. When an actor uses the “N” word, no one balks — free speech, though an entire race is vilified. Yet free speech limitations aren’t aimed at Hollywood or entertainment elites. Like the actors who live off violent gun-filled movies decrying the trauma of gun violence, so too, a contradiction is clearly evident among entertainment and media elites who support free speech limiting legislation.

It’s this duplicity that drove the framers to enshrine these founding rights. To prevent the silencing of those who dissent, free speech was viewed not as permitted, or created by popular opinion or government agencies, but as an absolute right. The framers of course didn’t have our modern problem with absolutes. “All men are created equal…” might ring a bell. We can accuse them of hypocrisy in consistent application of the principal, (a shared fault in attempting to regulate speech), but an absolute nonetheless. The Civil Rights movement succeeded in highlighting this duplicity through unlimited free speech, including religious speech aimed at political change. The framers in their undying wisdom understood the difference between distasteful and forbidden. And to prevent the  prohibition of speech they hallowed it as an absolute value.

Therein lies something incredibly difficult in 21st century America — a set of values built on absolutes.

“There’s no single truth which applies to everyone,” Academia counters. But if true, why should I abandon my convictions about my truth to comply with someone else’s view? Make no mistake. Silencing viable alternative views is the goal of speech limitations. The fact that I might be wrong about my religion, politics or sexuality are simply too much to bear. “The truth shall make you free,” someone once said, “but first it shall make you miserable.” We Americans have no tolerance for the misery of truth. We prefer the comfort of lies. We will hear no evil, so speech must be limited rather than absolute.

Yet the double standard is evident. Examples abound of our belief and defense of absolutes that suit our purposes. Consider abortion, a practice built on the woman’s absolute right to choose. The ongoing medical debate hinges on the absolute right to health care. Despite America’s pluralistic heritage one might say America’s one true god is unassailable, unquestioned, personal choice. But doesn’t such indisputable choice extend to what I say to the pressing social issues? Limiting my vocabulary, forbidding certain expressions, words, or titles, in the name of choice, is in fact a violation of choice. Free speech demands that my selection of words must be up to me.

No doubt many things shouldn’t be said; racial slurs, sexually demeaning terms, insults regarding appearance or personal intelligence are unacceptable. Personally, I’d love to see  the “F” word disappear from public use. Anyone who’s been bullied can find names or phrases to eliminate. Beyond those obvious notations, however, lies a minefield of contradiction and hypocrisy. Suggesting that a minister cannot express a political opinion, or a doctor a medical judgment about sexuality or abortion, or a teacher an outlook about how to improve the classroom, does nothing to promote freedom. Instead it promotes tyranny by forbidding the freedom the framers envisioned. The words I choose not to say must be my choice or the freedom of free speech disappears.

William Shifflett is an Edinburg resident.