The reason you are able to read this opinion column is rooted in the First Amendment right of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. The ability to say what we think about public officials or big businesses is a unique right that isn’t found in many countries. We often take it for granted.
And yet, the ability of U.S. citizens to exercise the freedom to speak their conscience is increasingly coming under assault. From a variety of places, governments and institutions seek to ban or control speech they disagree with.
• College campuses have become hostile to speech deemed politically incorrect. Some campuses have “speech codes” in place. Graduation speakers have been harassed and uninvited because their personal political views didn’t conform to the political correctness barometer found on most college campuses. But there are dozens of other examples, from efforts to marginalize students who express conservative political views to denying tenure to professors who are deemed by their peers to be politically incorrect. A student at a college in Oklahoma is currently under fire for having distributed flyers denouncing a particular religious group on the campus. The student considers the group to be a dangerous cult. But college officials have now banned the student from distributing the flyers, claiming they violate the college’s code of conduct that bans “offensive” and “discriminatory” speech. School officials consider their code of conduct to be more important than the First Amendment. The student is suing the school over its inane policy.
• Sen. Harry Reid and other liberal Democrats are moving to have a constitutional amendment presented that would limit freedom of speech by limiting political donations. Freedom of speech and participation in the nation’s political process isn’t just limited to writing words and moving lips; the right to volunteer and campaign for a candidate or give money to a candidate is also a fundamental right of our political process. Reid’s amendment, introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, would give Congress the power to control political spending and the raising of political funds. No matter what your political beliefs may be, allowing Congress to control political speech is a terrible idea.
• Recent efforts by the IRS to target and harass conservative political groups is a move made by the federal government to stifle political speech that disagrees with the incumbent administration. Since its inception, the IRS has been used by presidents and other political leaders as a weapon to target political foes. What makes the most recent efforts different, however, is that the agency wasn’t targeting just one political foe, but rather a slew of groups that organized for conservative causes.
• Not all of government’s efforts to control speech are at the national level. A number of local governments are also putting up barriers designed to control speech. That generally takes the form of controlling comments made at public meetings. By limiting comments or making members of the public jump through hoops to get on a public body’s agenda, some local government groups seek to restrict public speech. Tennessee seems to currently have a spate of local schools boards trying to limit public comments and even the comments of its own members. A school board in Knox County, Tennessee has adopted policies that make having a student or teacher speak to the board to be almost impossible. Said one commentator about those efforts: “(It is) The effect of forcing teachers and other employees to go through a process more complicated than a corn maze. Keeping them quiet and out of public view is the ultimate goal. That same process has the effect of suppressing all such criticism and complaints.” Another Tennessee BOE in Nashville is upset with one of its own members who brings up sensitive and controversial issues at public meetings. That board is trying to stifle that member and force him to present a “united front” at public meetings. While none of us like to see public agencies argue and wrangle like kids, we do expect public officials to engage in healthy debate about important policies.
•The expansion of digital communi-cations has brought a new set of threats to free speech as some states have passed anti-bullying laws that go too far. On Facebook, in text messages and other forms of digital communication, people often post comments that offend or hurt others. That’s especially true among young people whose judgment lacks maturity. In response to these kinds of offensive comments, some states have passed laws that criminalize speech deemed to be “bullying.” But deciding what speech is truly intimidating and rises to the level that warrants criminal prosecution and what speech is merely antagonistic is a difficult question. The other area of digital communication that has questioned the limits of free speech is the abuse of private social media postings being used to fire employees. The forced resignation of a Barrow County teacher a few years ago is a famous example of a private posting (of the teacher holding a beer) bringing about the dismissal of an employee. Drawing the line between what is private speech that is protected under the First Amendment and what is public speech linked to employment has been a difficult area of the law. The First Amendment protects speech, but it doesn’t guarantee job security.
I have an on-going debate with my brother on whether the extreme political right or the extreme political left is more dangerous to liberty. He argues that the extreme conservative right with its self-anointed religious zealots is more dangerous because they believe they’re messengers of God and therefore willing to crush dissent based on pseudo religious grounds.
While religious zealotry is dangerous — just look at the results of Islamist zealotry — I contend that in the U.S. today, the extreme liberal left is more dangerous to our freedoms, especially the freedom of speech. The left is dominated by self-anointed elitist who believe themselves to be Gods. For many in today’s political left, the ends justify the means even if it means ignoring the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
But not only does the extreme political left want to use government power to crush those it disagrees with, it also uses more indirect means to silence opposition.
For example, it’s impossible to have any real discussion about race in the U.S. today because the liberal left screams “racism!” at anyone who doesn’t follow the orthodox liberal view that all white people are by their nature racist.
This kind of intimidation also has an impact on our freedom of speech as people begin to self-censor their comments out of fear they will become the target of a hateful backlash.
Today, we still have a great deal of freedom of speech in the U.S., but there are some strong currents tearing at those values in an effort to undermine and eventually erode this most important of our democratic freedoms.
We don’t have freedom of speech because our government gives it to us; we have freedom of speech because it is a fundamental human right.
Every person should have the ability to speak his beliefs — political, religious, and social — without the fear of government or institutional retribution.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.