This is a layperson’s (my) opinion of how free speech is supposed to work: American citizens are allowed to express themselves using various protected forms of speech – speech that doesn’t incite violence or bodily harm (an example of illegal speech being, if someone were to falsely call out “Fire!” in a crowded theater at the risk of causing a stampede). In using protected speech, citizens are allowed to express their opinion, even if it appears to the majority to be repellent, obnoxious, disgusting or just plain wrong.
Other citizens, at that point, have the right to voice their opinion to the original speaker in open debate and tell them that they are repellent, obnoxious, disgusting or just plain stupid. As adults, we are encouraged by the Constitution to engage in public debate and even heated arguments – short of physical violence, resulting from that debate. And, in the end, the majority can decide which opinion they agree or disagree with. Consequently, if someone (like Ms. Palin) makes enough statements that go against broader opinion, then the public could choose to rightfully ignore her or even call her out as a crackpot.
Is Palin guilty of misguided public statements and a bloodthirsty pursuit of furthering her own political agenda? Should she have used better judgement? Maybe so. That’s for each individual to decide. That’s how free speech and democracy are supposed to work.
Because of the extremely tragic incident in Arizona where six lives were lost and several people wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a new uproar for limiting speech is being argued in the media. Parties are pointing fingers and several political pundits calling for “inflammatory speech and symbols” to be culled out of the public discourse.
Trouble is, as with “obscenity” – how do you clearly define what is “inflammatory?” And who’s in charge of defining it?
As Jeffrey Miron said in an article posted on CNN.com, there’s no guarantee that free speech will or needs to be “civil,” but once you allow the government (or other entities) to start restricting speech, you’ve started a slow slide down a slippery slope.
“The argument for free speech holds simply that the harms from government restrictions on speech are worse than the harms from free speech itself. If government can determine what constitutes acceptable speech, it will use that power to restrict speech in inappropriate ways,” Miron said.
And while there has been an outpouring of sympathy for the victims and their families, there is no proof that’s been brought to light (yet) that accused shooter Jared Loughner was influenced by Palin’s press campaign featuring a “cross-hair map” targeting Democratic congressional seats, including Gabrielle Giffords’. Even if he was a sworn acolyte of the Church of the Mama Grizzly, it’s not like Palin went down to the gun shop and bought the ammo for him.
For all we know, Lougner may have been hearing voices or reacting to any number of perceived messages from media or elsewhere. The sad fact of the matter is that Loehner appears to be mentally unstable – and there will always be mentally unstable individuals that will act out violently. Restricting speech isn’t going to change that, the same way that outlawing adult material wouldn’t stop rapists or sex offenders from acting on their compulsions.
At the end of the day, you’ve got crazed gunman Loughner, muttering on a YouTube video about his “genocide school” and how “they are controlling the grammar.” You’ve got Palin spitting out sound bytes like “Don’t retreat – reload!” and “blood libel.” Censorship won’t eliminate the problems of mental illness or hate speech, but may actually make it harder to detect – much less find resolutions for these issues. Take away each individual’s right to analyze what is being said so that they can make a well-informed choice opens the door for thought control, misinformation, agenda-pushing and propaganda.
If we allow speech to be limited because of the chance that there may be unstable individuals that will maim or kill, isn’t that basically the same as giving into terrorism? Why should sane, intelligent people have to watch what they say, in order not to ignite some lunatic’s fuse? And if others speak of lunacy, using rhetoric that the majority does not accept, then why should sane, intelligent people be restricted from arguing against that speech?
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
All men are created equal – for me, that presumes that all men are capable of deciding for themselves what is appropriate and inappropriate, what they agree with or don’t agree with. Once you allow someone else to decide what’s correct for you to say (or hear or see or think), you lose another little bit of your right to make that decision for yourself – you lose a little bit of your freedom.
We hold these truths to be self-evident… -jc