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If you cherish free speech, be very alarmed

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It was a headline I never thought I would see in our own country: Majority of Americans Want to Scrap First Amendment.  That was the assessment from a poll commissioned last month by the Campaign for Free Speech, a 501(c)(3) organization founded by First Amendment advocates.

Not only did the poll find that over half of Americans think the First Amendment is outdated and should be rewritten, nearly half also say “hate speech” should be illegal, with a majority of the hate speech haters suggesting jail time as the more proper form of punishment versus a ticket or a fine. To top it off, over one-third of those surveyed say a government agency should be formed to regulate speech.

J.D. Mesnard

J.D. Mesnard

These results are remarkable in the worst possible sense.  Even if some of these views stem from ignorance (the poll found nearly 80% of those surveyed didn’t have a good understanding of what the First Amendment really protects), they should have all supporters of freedom and democracy sounding the alarm.

Freedom of speech, the first of what Franklin D. Roosevelt characterized as the “four essential human freedoms,” is how we make our voices heard, share ideas, and communicate beliefs. I see it every day here at the Legislature, as people from all walks of life come down to register their opinions on pending legislation. In all its varied forms, speech is how we express our very selves, which is why free speech embodies a free society.

Our Founding Fathers knew this. They had used powerful words to declare self-evident truths about freedom, equality and independence when such views were not shared by the government (Great Britain).  They rallied behind the freedom of speech because they knew the power in words to change the world.

So why do so many people today – particularly younger people according to the poll – take issue with this fundamental freedom? There are probably many culprits. For one, it’s easy to take for granted a freedom we’ve always had, especially if we haven’t experienced first-hand the scary prospects that can come from reducing it. Think Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao … You get the idea. Speech restriction was critical to their despotic regimes.

But I suspect much of the growing opposition to free speech is due to the increasing lack of civility found in our civil discourse, and our greater sensitivity to words. Words can hurt, and today’s social media definitely provides a megaphone that is often abused. I don’t like it either, but the best way to deal with words we don’t like is to recall the old adage about sticks and stones. That’s certainly what I remind myself whenever some malcontent decides to spew 280 characters of pure filth on my Twitter feed.

Unfortunately, more people (61%) would prefer to resort to restriction if speech has the “potential to be hurtful or offensive,” even in places that have traditionally been the mainstays of diversity of opinion and thought, like college campuses. (Sadly, a number of college campuses themselves have been perpetrators, establishing “speech zones” or codes that restrict the marketplace of ideas). If mere potentiality of offense triggers speech restriction, we’re in serious trouble given how sensitive our society has become. There’s always the potential for words to be offensive. But folks, words can’t actually hurt you. Sticks and stones, yes; words, no. And taking offense is a choice – your choice. It’s entirely up to you how you decide to react to what someone says.

What about hurt feelings? We’ve all had them. It isn’t fun. Try as we might to let something simply bounce off of us – I’m rubber, you’re glue – isn’t always easy. I get it. But which do you suppose is more dangerous to a free society: the possibility of hurt feelings or a world where you can be punished for sharing your ideas or beliefs because a government regulator doesn’t like them?

Indeed, I wonder how civil rights would have fared if an “impartial” government regulator (is there such a thing?) had been given the power to determine that a guy giving a speech aimed at fundamentally altering certain societal rules was offensive and, using his newly found policing powers, decided to shut down the man’s speech before he had the chance to utter those iconic words “I have a dream …”

Perhaps this seems farfetched to some. After all, free speech and “hate speech” are easily distinguishable, right? To be clear, I strongly oppose hateful speech, but who decides what constitutes “hate?” The aforementioned “impartial” government regulator? That really just translates to being at the mercy of whomever is at the helm of the levers of power.

That’s why instead of censoring speech or suppressing or rewriting a constitutional freedom, let’s learn how to have meaningful dialogue in our diversity. Rather than “thought police,” let’s have thoughtful debate. Let’s promote civility and esteem for one another, teaching both the value of free words and how to talk to each other, while leaving our sensitivities aside. Tolerance and inclusion mean respecting others’ values and opinions even during passionate disagreement, not policing them or shutting them down, or applying demeaning labels like “hate” as a way of justifying our own intolerance.

— Sen. J.D. Mesnard, a Republican, represents Legislative District 17 in the Southeast Valley.

One comment

  1. bradley taylor hudson

    Mr. Mesnard is right: controlling speech is a slippery slope. Even the concept of simply demanding “truth” or “facts” creates the first question: “according to who?” Any government watchdog agency will likely become another political battlefield, as the Supreme Court is now.
    But we have problems in free-speech that did not exist in 1776. We now have “media” that claim not to be “news” media, thus not constrained by thoughts of truth and integrity. The problem is that they have become the source of “news” for most people. Extreme uncontrolled mass media has created potential for abuse not imagined in 1776. How would the First Amendment been written if there was only one newspaper for the entire world at that time?
    Mr. Mesnard says that “words can’t actually hurt you”. While this is a nice lesson for children, it is not true. Words change people’s minds. They change reality itself. The topic of Facebook brainwashing is too complex to address here, but anyone can research it. People cannot simply ignore hateful words when they are being beaten, killed, or denied rights.
    Mr. Mesnard’s remedies sound good, and should be pursued. But they are not enough. We need concrete remedies now in order to save free-speech.
    One remedy is to break up media monopolies. We have broken-up monopolies before when their harm was obvious. When we have one or two media outlets controlling almost all of the media, we have less free speech, not more.
    The second remedy is to stop equating the spending of money with free-speech. Our present system provides some people more free-speech than others. The author refers to FDR citing “people from all walks of life” opining on legislation. We all know that such scenes are no longer the case. Only those with lots of money get to “register their opinions” with legislators. A rich person should have the same rights to free-speech as a poor person, not more.

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