Children’s first exposure to the freedoms that Americans cherish sometimes comes not from kindly parents or wise teachers, but from an obnoxious jerk insulting someone or cursing at something. Ranting till the veins bulge in his neck.
If confronted, the loudmouth snaps back, “Yeah, well, it’s a free country.”
Indeed it is, as we reminded ourselves and the world during our Independence Day festivities this past weekend. Not only do we treasure — and millions elsewhere long to enjoy — our freedoms, but our heroes all too often die to preserve them.
As a simple statement, etched on a wall abutting the contemplative Pool of Remembrance at the Korean War Veterans Memorial here in Washington reminds us, “Freedom is Not Free.”
Before all else, the Bill of Rights appended to the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans’ freedom of speech. But tension is growing between that right and words that offend — or used to offend when we were less tolerant of gutter talk and lewd behavior.
In 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while freedom of speech is exalted, it is not unlimited. We may not shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Nor, according to a later ruling, may we legally burn a cross on a person’s lawn or incite a crowd to violence.
Yet burning an American flag, equally loathsome to some, is considered a permissible exercise of free speech.
In the 1970s, hate-spewing neo-Nazis were given the OK to march through Skokie, Illinois — where one in six residents was a Holocaust survivor. The Nazis never showed up, but the Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers are much in evidence in equally volatile surroundings today. Phelps is a disbarred lawyer and self-styled Baptist preacher — self-styled because no Baptist denomination recognizes him. He and his followers despise gay people. “God hates fags,” they scream — most provocatively and insensitively at the funerals of U.S. servicemen and women killed abroad.
Whether or not the soldiers are thought to be gay, the Phelps brigade attributes their deaths to God’s wrath against Americans for tolerating homosexuality.
And into this volatile mix have roared muscular motorcyclists, calling themselves the “Patriot Guard Riders.” They menace Reverend Phelps and his crowd — escalating already-raw emotions at what were supposed to be solemn farewells to the nation’s heroes.
Courts have steadfastly protected Reverend Phelps and his followers’ right to assemble and speak, however vilely. But in many cases they have imposed a no-picketing buffer zone between the Phelps crowd and mourners. Nonetheless, one cannot miss their coarse chanting at 46 meters (150 feet).
Just how hateful can speech be and still be protected? Read on.
In 2006, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia struck down a law aimed at shielding children from Internet pornography. The court affirmed earlier decisions that even though pornography offends most people, porn on the Web is free speech, protected by the First Amendment.
In many Internet mailboxes — including some easily accessed by children — what used to be a trickle of unsolicited porn advertisements has turned into a torrent. In part, that’s because the Internet has become a plum market for pornographers. A few years ago, Datamonitor, a New York-based research company, estimated that Internet users spend more than $3 billion a year paying to see porn on increasingly explicit websites.
Looking for still more customers, porn website owners are inundating the Net with what is called “porn spam” — often laced with graphic sexual photographs — as a tease to visit paid sex websites. They fire off spam like a random shotgun blast to millions of e-mail addresses at once.
Agreeing on what constitutes pornography, let alone whether it reaches beyond the boundary of protected speech, is tricky. Porn-site owners have successfully eased the term “adult material” into the lexicon, making even hard-core sexual content seem like harmless entertainment for grown-ups. All the while, pornography websites get darker and darker, displaying scenes of torture, bestiality, and child sexual abuse.
Free speech? Not if you ask Gail Dines, who directs the American studies program at Wheelock College in Boston. She has written a chapter about Internet porn in a feminist anthology called Sisterhood is Forever. She says the effect of pornography — first honed by ever-more-provocative sex magazines, beginning with the soft porn of Playboy magazine in 1953 — is that even young boys are accepting the degradation of women as the norm.
“They see themselves as entitled to use females in any way they want,” Dines says. “And girls are beginning to see themselves as products to be used by men in order to gratify men sexually. You’re socializing girls to become sex objects.”
And what are gory video games teaching? Doesn’t much matter, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, which just last month by a 7-2 vote, rejected limits on ultra-violent games as violations of young users’ First Amendment rights. The justices in the majority ruled that the responsibility for policing the games should be left to parents and the multibillion-dollar gaming industry. A “Fox Ordered to Patrol Henhouse” headline would describe that solution.
States have the right to protect young people from harm, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority, but “that does not include free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.”
Nor are comic actors such as Tracy Morgan in any way restrained from mocking minorities, gays, immigrants, or anyone else they choose. In a comedy club stand-up routine, Morgan blurted that if he found out his son was gay, he would “pull out a knife and stab him.” A real side-splitter, for which he later apologized.
Rap-music “artists” deliver misogynistic, violent “gansta” lyrics as if they were staccato lullabies. Some win Grammy awards for this “art.”
It’s arguable that we pay an extremely high price for our freedom, not just on battlefields but also in the everyday diminution of societal standards.
College campuses, which you would think would be petri dishes for vigorous and almost unfettered exchanges of ideas, are places where free speech is tested regularly.
One day in 1992, for instance, a University of Pennsylvania student had trouble studying in his Philadelphia dormitory because other students were talking loudly outside. He threw open the window and shouted, “Shut up, you stupid water buffalo!”
That one remark sparked a debate that rages to this day.
The students who were talking were young black women. They charged the male student with racial harassment. He told school authorities that he had no idea the women were black and meant no offense. He just wanted some peace and quiet.
Eventually the women dropped the charges, stating that they did not believe they could receive a fair hearing.
The case got extraordinary publicity around the country, and a number of colleges immediately enacted what they called “hate-speech” codes, forbidding people from using words as a weapon of hate.
This, in turn, provoked an outcry from those who argue that a college campus is in fact the perfect place for the free exchange of ideas, no matter how offensive. Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley wrote that “if one person cannot call another a ‘water buffalo’ on an American college campus, then the campus . . . becomes a sort of thought prison in which people can say only what the university permits them to say.”
Others, though, said hate-speech codes were needed to prevent intimidation of minorities, whom many colleges were trying hard to attract and retain.
Most hate-speech codes that were enacted remain in force today. They are based on the so-called “fighting words” exception to traditional guarantees of free speech in the belief that contemptible, spittle-spewing language can promote violence and prevent others from enjoying the freedoms of the land.
However, as we saw with the inclusion of violent video games, blanket protections of free speech are spreading beyond the spoken and written word. A couple of years ago, a Virginia delegate introduced a bill that would make teenage boys — and hip-hoppers of any age and sex — liable to a $50 fine if their baggy, drooping pants revealed their undergarments.
Like their shorts, the issue got extraordinary exposure. It ignited a firestorm of reaction. Forcing people to hitch up their pants violates free expression, free speech, and other free things, people wrote the Virginia Legislature. It’s racist, since young African Americans are said to have started the trend. Never mind that the author of the measure was a black man and a longtime civil-rights leader. What right did a 67-year-old fossil have to tell us how to dress?
The Legislature in Richmond got the message. The saggy-pants bill was defeated — unanimously — in committee.
And just down the road in Charlottesville, Virginia, people got all a-dither over a monument. Not a building, equestrian statue or other sculpture. Not an obelisk.
A wall, dedicated to free speech.
Charlottesville erected the Freedom of Expression Monument — a two-sided chalkboard reminiscent of a classroom blackboard but much, much larger — in a little park at one end of a pedestrian mall. The words to the nation’s First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, are the only permanent inscription.
Otherwise, people are welcome to write just about anything they have on their minds there. Robert Winstead, one of the architects who created it, says he and a friend thought of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, where people take rubbings of the names of loved ones and leave mementos. “We have lots of memorials to heroic figures and to great events in our history,” Winstead told me. “But almost all of them are kind of object monuments meant to be viewed from afar and not really interacted with.”
Charlottesville’s mayor and council overwhelmingly supported the chalkboard, which stands right across from City Hall and is erased each Thursday. Mayor Blake Caravati called it “a rather courageous thing for a government to get behind — particularly politicians — because what it’s inviting is speech of all type.”
David Toscano, the lone council member to vote against the chalkboard idea, said he feared it would be a magnet for graffiti artists rather than a monument to the First Amendment — a magnet not for heroic verses, stirring poetry, or shocking invective, but for trivial personal messages of little public concern, such as the “Baby doll loves Ernie, her big, strong man” message that I found on a smaller bulletin board across town.
Turned out, the First Amendment wall gets a lot of thought-provoking comments, poignant reminiscences, political chatter, clever plays on words — and only a bit of what I would call graffiti.
Almost no blistering invective. There’s plenty of that elsewhere, directed at the president of the United States, at other polarizing politicians, even at visiting teams’ players at sporting events.
“Not just [in] sports, but the level of civility in society has diminished,” Ronald Kamm, the director of the Sports Psychiatry Association, based in New Jersey, told the Washington Post’s Mike Wise. “Part of entertainment now is demonizing the other guy.”
When star basketball player Kevin Love returned to his home state of Oregon, playing with the visiting University of California at Los Angeles team against the squad from the University of Oregon, Wise wrote in his column, “his grandmother was called a whore, his family was pelted with food, placards held by students found creative ways to say he was gay and, oh, he also got this nice little message (one of 400 left by Ducks fans who distributed his cellphone numbers among each other): ‘If you guys win, we’ll come to your house and kill your family.’”
“Ducks” is the University of Oregon nickname. Vicious, pecking ducks, apparently.
I’ve heard far too many rabid fans — rabid as in sometimes literally foaming at the mouth — sitting right next to women and children at sporting events, curse rival teams’ players and rooters at the top of their beery breath. And the first, slurred words when you confront them? “Yeah, well [fill in the vulgarity], it’s a free country.”
Free enough that two enraged Los Angeles Dodger fans could punch and kick a young man into a coma just because he was wearing a jersey of the hated San Francisco Giants, as happened at Dodger Stadium earlier this year?
As we become insensitized to pandering and hate-filled rhetoric and the Internet and unfiltered cable-TV channels push “freedom” to the limits of scuzziness, our acceptance of unfettered speech is approaching “anything goes” proportions.
The result, to a lot of people’s way of thinking, is a cruder, more vitriolic and confrontational — and ever-more violent — nation.
While deadly chaos on a “fire in a crowded theater” level rarely ensues, there are victims: civility, goodwill, and what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
Free speech is protected, revered, an inviolate right for which thousands of Americans have given their lives. But speaking out against disgusting and demeaning discourse is free speech, too.
Written by Ted Landphair
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