Friday, May 16, 2008

What Freedom of Speech Is (and What it is Not)

Hi dummies! I am getting really tired of some of you misunderstanding what the phrase "free speech" means in the context of U.S. law, so I wrote this post to help you out. For those of you who missed/forgot what you learned in civics class, here is the text of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

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.

For those of you who lack basic reading comprehension skills (but Madison, what big words you have), here is the part that deals with free speech.

Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech.

Note the word "Congress". (Now, we can have a legitimate debate about whether or not Congress actually obeys this amendment - Hell, 11 years after they ratified it, they passed the Sedition Act, and then you've got "fire in a crowded theatre," obscenity laws, defamation laws, speech restrictions in public schools and so on - but that's not why we are here.) "Freedom of Speech" means that the government is not allowed (sort of) to restrict your right to express yourself.

It does not mean that you can say whatever you want and no one is allowed to care.

Case 1: Ryan Sorba and The Born Gay Hoax.

Mr. Sorba wrote a book called The Born Gay Hoax. I slogged through about half of the advance version before I got tired of the tortured prose (this guy writes like a blog activists...hetero-repugnant-homo-narcissism...). From what I gathered, his basic thesis is that because the term "gay" and the widespread notion of an identity centered around same-sex love are relatively new constructs, gay rights are bad.

Now Mr. Sorba was giving a speech at Smith, den of liberal iniquity that it is. A bunch of lesbians disrupted his speech by shouting and otherwise making noise. He had to stop giving the speech, because the atmosphere had become too loud for anyone to hear him. Subsequently, a bunch of anti-gay activists trumpeted this supposed "free speech violation" to the world.

Newsflash, guys! Smith lesbians are not "Congress" (as much I may personally wish they were). While it may have annoyed you, the Smith protest was not illegal and it was not a violation of free speech. Nothing and nobody got hurt here except perhaps Mr. Sorba's ego. Certainly, we can have a legitimate debate about whether this protest was the best option available to Smith students, or whether or not it was the neighborly thing to do. However, for those of you who've forgotten, the 1st Amendment says "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech". The 1st Amendment does not say "You must sit down, shut up and listen to pseudoscientific propaganda from people who fell asleep in class when everyone else what discussing Foucault."

The reason why the 1st Amendment does not say that it because that, my friends, would be a restriction of free speech.

Case 2: The Firing of Crystal Dixon

Crystal Dixon was formerly an associate vice president of human resources at the University of Toledo (which is a state university, so all that government stuff is relevant here). Ms. Dixon was in charge of carrying out the school's policies on diversity.

Now, Ms. Dixon wrote what has been variously described as a letter or a column in the Toledo Free Press (the distinction is immaterial in this context) in which she outlined her views on gay rights. Ms. Dixon does not believe in gay rights. (In some sense, she does not believe in gay people - being gay is a can change...Exodus...PFOX...).

In light of this expression of her right to freedom of speech, Ms. Dixon got fired. Subsequently, a bunch of anti-gay activists freaked out about the firing. I know some of you might have gotten confused, what with Bush's track record on nominees for government positions (see David Palmer, Michael Leavitt, Bill Pryor, etc.) and all those not having to do your job if you don't like it laws for pharmacists and stuff, but being able to do your job is actually an important criterion for your retention at said job. Ms. Dixon stated, publicly, her contempt for a central tenant of her position at the University of Toledo. She was offered another position at the University, one that would not require her to uphold the rights of gay students/staff/prospective students/staff. She chose not to take it.

Let's take this out of the context of gay rights. Let's say I work for Coca-Cola. Let's say I'm in charge of marketing my company's product to schools. Now, as a private citizen, I publish an article (or a blog post, or a letter, or whatever) indicating that I think Coca-Cola is an evil product of the corn conspiracy, contributing to the decline of health and the rise of obesity in children, and that marketing Coca-Cola to schools is wrong. The next day, I have to clean out my desk. I had every right to my opinion and the expression thereof. Coke had every right to fire me.

Of course, the Coca-Cola corporation isn't the government (well...not exactly...) but this applies to publicly funded/controlled stuff too. If I work for a committee in charge of implementing the Violence Against Women Act, and I have publicly stated my opposition to the very act I'm supposed to be implementing, I should lose my job (or rather, never have been given it in the first place) no matter what President Bush may think about it.

Once again, that's: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech."
It's not "no employer may fire an employee for publicly expressing contempt for the job function they are supposed to perform."

Case 3: Calling You a Bigot

Sally Kern made a speech. In this speech, she said that gay rights are a greater threat to this nation than terrorism (which is probably true if by "this nation" you mean "white male Protestant privilege" but otherwise not true). A gay rights group filmed said speech, and made portions available on YouTube. Many people got upset. Subsequently, anti-gay activists got upset because Ms. Kern was "labeled a bigot."

Do we need to trot that Amendment out again? Sally Kern has every right to say that gays are worse than terrorists. She has every right to characterize this statement as "not anti- and not gay bashing". In short, she has the right to be a bigot. She has the right to be wrong. She does not have the right not to be called a bigot. She does not have the right not to have her statements criticized, her resignation called for, and her reelection opposed. That would be a violation of freedom of speech. "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech." Not "No one is allowed to get angry or upset at you for saying stupid crap."

Sorry. You have a right to say homophobic things. I have a right to call you a homophobe for doing to it. Too bad for you.

So stop whining about your free speech rights being violated when they haven't been. Just in case you missed the point of this post, the previous statement was not a violation of your free speech rights, even though it told you to shut up.

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