Free Speech

Greg Gerritt   October 14, 2017

Recently there has been much discussion about the nature of free speech and what it actually means. Here is my interpretation.

Free speech means that the government and the powerful may not suppress or block political statements by anyone. The powerful and the government can not suppress reporting on the news or comments on the issues of the day. No one should be arrested for peaceful protest, government officials shall not arrest people trying to deliver a message. Public spaces shall be freely available for the public to take a stand on the issues.

Free speech only constrains the government and those supporting it. It does not constrain anyone else. Recently there have been outcries because football players used the playing of a song about war to protest police brutality. You may or may not approve, but their actions are completely within the range of PROTECTED free speech activities. You can not arrest someone for refusing to stand for a poem put to the tune of a drinking song. ( A side note, maybe underscoring my understanding of the situation is that a few years ago I visited Fort McHenry and I have seen fully how US government uses the song as propaganda for war).

If President Toxic Dump wants to really put pressure on football players who are sick and tired of Jim Crow and police brutality maybe the best thing is to stop the Pentagon from advertising on football games and stop the military from providing color guards and fly overs. That would be putting his money where his mouth is. And maybe he could use the excuse that it no longer makes sense for the American government to spend tax dollars supporting an industry that is designed to give its participants long term neurological damage often leading to an early death.

Another side of the free speech debate is phenomena of audiences not letting members of the ruling class speak by making lots of noise. First a question. Have you ever seen a musician booed off the stage? I have. The musician in question was probably a fine musician, a well known professional. But when he paused for a breath for the first time after 45 minutes, everyone booed. He had nothing to offer the audience worth having. So we booed. And he left;.

How is that different from booing a police commissioner here to talk about how he racially profiles and locks up kids? You mean to tell me the audience is not allowed to boo? The audience is not allowed to yell when the speaker tells lies? The audience is not allowed to tell the speaker in no uncertain terms that what he is saying is offensive , degrading, disgusting and that the school gave him a microphone was a travesty of justice? The people have a right to free speech, the government does not. The people can never abridge free speech. It is actually impossible. Only the government can do that. Can i arrest the speaker? Can I stop the publication of his book? Can i prevent him from talking to audiences that want to hear what he has to say? If I can not do that, if I can not stop him from delivering his message to all who want to hear it, I am not guilty of being against free speech. But when I boo I practice free speech. And the confusion between what the public does a and what the government does has been ignored in this discussion and totally skews the discussion away from what free speech really is, including what kinds of speech must be protected by the government, or at least not suppressed by the government, and what to call it when an audience works to make sure the speaker understands how disgusting their message is.

There is another facet of this issue that gets conflated with the first two issues. That is when a college or a community decide that allowing an event to go forward will likely lead to violence. No one wants violence over words, though the powerful have been using violence to repress the poor forever (at least 10,000 years). When the oppressed decide that they will stand up when the oppressors come to town occasionally colleges and communities cancel events or deny permits. I am sort of agnostic on this one. Practical steps to prevent a violent outbreak are a good thing. Telling someone they can not speak is offensive. It is going to be a tough call to decide if the event should go forward. I can live with the fact that this is a judgement call that I may disagree with occassionally.


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