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The Free Speech Excuse

The title of this article may be misleading.  To be clear: I am a big fan of the First Amendment.  Freedom of speech is possibly the most important individual human freedom.  Every person in the world should be allowed to freely express himself in “the marketplace of ideas,” except in extremely rare circumstances.

Yet many people confuse the point underlying freedom of speech.  Freedom of speech gives one the right to express him or herself.  However, it does not mean that one should express one’s self in any manner.  John has the right to say: “If you are a non-Christian, you are inferior;” yet Susan does not have to condone this speech simply because John has a right to make that statement.  Freedom of speech works both ways – Susan can judge John and make her judgment known by stating publicly that his statement is bigoted.  If John responds by saying that he should not be condemned because of freedom of speech – this is a false argument.  John has the right to say what he wants, but Susan and all others offended by his comment may judge him at will.

Unfortunately, the above example is not a far-fetched creation from my mind.  In California, a car dealership actually said the following in a radio advertisement (click to hear audio):

Did you know that there are people in this country who want prayer out of schools, “Under God” out of the Pledge, and “In God We Trust” to be taken off our money?

But did you know that 86% of Americans say they believe in God? Now, since we all know that 86 out of every 100 of us are Christians who believe in God, we at Kieffe & Sons Ford wonder why we don’t just tell the other 14% to sit down and shut up. I guess maybe I just offended 14% of the people who are listening to this message. Well, if that is the case, then I say that’s tough, this is America folks, it’s called free speech. And none of us at Kieffe & Sons Ford are afraid to speak up. Kieffe & Sons Ford on Sierra Highway in Mojave and Rosamond: if we don’t see you today, by the grace of God, we’ll be here tomorrow.

Under the “Kieffe & Sons Ford” interpretation of the First Amendment, it seems that (1) Freedom of speech only applies to the majority opinion; (2) if someone makes a statement that offends others, asserting that the statement is “free speech” means the statement should not be condemned.  I’m sure that’s exactly what the founding fathers were going for.  [Not So Silver Lining: Apparently Kieffe & Sons apologized after many complaints, then retracted their apology.]

The essential problem here, and in many usages of offensive speech, is the assumption that free speech does not go both ways.  But it does – anyone has a right to condemn another for saying something that is idiotic, offensive, or short-sighted.  Simply because something is within the right to free speech does not mean it must be condoned, or that a response to that speech is not considered free speech of its own.  Nor does the right to free speech only apply to a majoritarian view.  Any child who has studied Galileo and Copernicus, or Adolf Hitler’s Germany knows that a majority-only free speech rule would be unproductive and dangerous.

Perhaps everything I’ve written in this piece is completely obvious to everyone that will read it.  But there are many people out there that think they should have a “get out of jail free” card for making offensive speech simply because they have a right to make it.  You can exercise a right and be a horrible person at the same time.

[P.S. This reasoning also applies to how both major American political parties argue against “political correctness,” but in different ways and merely to favor themselves.  Maybe sometime soon I’ll write an article about that.]

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