From hate speech to terrorism: Freedom of speech under assault

In our wars against terrorism abroad and hatred at home, free speech and truth are two of the casualties. Photo: Berlin Wall/Jim Picht

NEW YORK, June 11, 2013 — The United States consistently condemns foreign governments that silence and imprison their journalists. Our government routinely condemns infringements on “freedom of speech.” 

Yet freedom of speech in America is constantly under siege and is slowly being circumscribed. The right to speak freely and publicly on all political matters and on almost anything else is a touchstone of our national identity, yet at the same time we are reminded to mind our manners. We live in a nation where there exists a wide gap between acceptable public language and what ordinary people think of when defending “free speech.”

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As a nation, we need and expect unfiltered media to expose the failures of our elected governments and to expose abuses of power. But what exactly is this right of free speech that we expect and defend, not understanding that it’s under-siege and could disappear in the blink of an eye. In America, there is no right more fundamental than the freedom to verbally express yourself, regardless of who it may offend.

Without this first amendment right, you can’t be guaranteed the ability to communicate your interests, denounce injustice, practice your religion, or criticize your own government. When freedom of speech is diminished, “truth” becomes subject to government revision. This is censorship, and censorship is about remaking the past to fit an official narrative and controlling the way we see the present.

Imagine a world where anything you say, read or write can be used against you in a court of law. In some places, the works of disapproved writers have been seized and burned by governments eager to wipe out dangerous ideas. The goal has been to control the thoughts of their own citizens. Journalists, authors and political opponents have been silenced, and even killed for telling stories in opposition to the official stories of their governments.

Even in the U.S., our leaders have censored films and music, sometimes with our enthusiastic support. They’ve gathered our communications in order to comb them for clues of criminal behavior, even when we’ve been accused of no crime, either with our acquiescence or our positive support.

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The most typical freedom of speech exercise we see is the right to express your opinion when disagreeing with those with political power, and not just those in elected or government positions. We have the right to oppose opinion leaders, the press itself, and even the massed opinions of our neighbors.  The defense and exercise of free speech has resulted in millions of Americans — workers, regular people, students, and others — being punished for “objectionable” language, and even losing employment.

So why is freedom of speech under attack in a nation that’s supposed to protect our civil liberties and be free?

The first real problem is that the government has oozed its way into control of our media. Our national news channels and networks typically feature former government consultants and political flacks, all who have a stake in the government’s interest, not in ours. What has resulted over the last 40 years is the harassment and public criticism of Americans whose only crime has been challenging unpopular ideas or exposing the federal government’s un-truths.

Let’s not forget a document called the “Bill of Rights” that makes the practice of censorship illegal. ”Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech”. So when discussing censorship, what about the practice of “at will” employment, when it relates to freedom of speech? An “at will” employee can be terminated at any time and for any reason, which gives employers the legal right to end someone’s employment.

Imagine that you were employed “at will,” and your employer decided to terminate you because you spoke at a civil rights rally. Is that a violation of your speech rights as we understand them, and of your civil liberties? What if you say insulting things about your employer on your own time, but in a public way? Between those two examples is a world of blurry lines. We understand that free speech isn’t free of consequences, and that those consequences can be severe enough to effectively limit our desire to claim the right to speak.

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There are other blurry lines. What if you support and organization like al Qaeda? Where’s the line between political speech and support for terrorism? Where’s the line between opposing same-sex marriage and promoting hate against gays? Should what you write in a blog be used to keep you off of airplanes, put you under extra scrutiny by the IRS, lead to an FBI investigation of your family and your business? Should there be such a crime as hate-speech, and who decides what’s hateful? Does my right to free speech trump your security?

It’s on those blurry lines that we fight battles over free speech today. In a society obsessed with security, it’s all but guaranteed that speech rights will lose. We could one day live in a society where we are penalized for opposing war, labeling behaviors as sin, protesting a government program, or even expressing ourselves in art. If we don’t start taking speech rights more seriously and paying much more attention to the power of the word, we could end up mute. That silence would not be golden.

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