I can call you out – it’s protected by the First Amendment…should it be?

When we are small, the first really noticeable action we find is in the groups. You are boys versus girls, with each group having “cooties”.  Then, sadly, most of us learn that name-calling will separate you and remove people from your way.  That you can call someone a name, and they will leave, or be saddened by it. There are few who were never called a name in a derogatory way, where the name calling was used like a scalpel, to cut to the bone. And we are somehow driven by this need to belong, to be seen as valid and viable by that group.  It may not mean that we are in tune with all of the beliefs of the group, or that we even vocalize and participate, but we are ‘part’ of the group – an ingrained desire by most of us.

 As you start to reason and process, you realize that often the name callers are more fearful and more insecure, unhappy or lacking in their own lives: they need that boost of ‘getting one over’ on you to improve their own self esteem. And perhaps we start to move from that ‘need’ to be in the group to be more confident and capable of standing alone, drawing in others with the same predilection.  

Even later on, we are exposed to the phrase “First Amendment Rights”.  That curious statement that allows us the ability to speak on anything, no matter how hateful or heinous, and feel that we are ‘allowed’ to express our thoughts with words of our choosing since it is protected speech.

 Yet, there are several issues and conundrums related to this concept. Not all speech is “protected” speech.  Perhaps that is not a bad thing. 

On the Media has an interview with law professor Jeremy Waldron, where he explains the curious nature in the change of hate speech, defining the distinction of  hate speech versus fighting words, and even makes a case for the ‘tightening’ of the interpretation of the protections of the first amendment.  (I suggest you read or listen, the premise is interesting and full of information and food for thought.)

 To continue this discussion, it is necessary to read the complete text of the amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Which has led many legal scholars to restate their belief and support of the amendment: including the Supreme Court in the Snyder v Phelps case of the Westboro Baptist Church’s appeal.

“As a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,”   ~Chief Justice John Roberts

 Yet Professor Waldron brings forward other issues: we have legal standards against defamation, libel, slander, obscenity, child pornography, sedition and even fighting words.  With the ‘tightening’ of the National Security Acts, we have enabled the FBI to investigate, request and require compliance without legal reason sufficient to produce a warrant, our library records, ISP records and even cellular: where the criminal penalties to those who “must produce” are tied to their informing us of the items being requested.  If you can’t have ‘freedom to research’ in the library, by reading every book in there including Mein Kampf, have we not already diluted the power in this freedom?

Or look at it all this way: this is a social-media society. We have 24 hour, around the clock news cycles. We have a dearth of good journalists writing for credible newspapers, the news outlets have a “big story” that lasts 90 seconds.  There is information everywhere. Not everyone is willing to understand there are as many opinions on every issue as there are people to speak them.  That, however, is just background information. 

What all of this social media does is bring people together, a very good thing. But while it can bring together people to discuss and share ideas, it is not selective as to what is shared. The ability to solidify feelings of racism, anarchy, sexism, all exist in this sphere of sharing. It is a giant “signpost” telling those who are leaning toward those thoughts that there is a viable and operable group of others who think in the same way.  I take from the case, Beauharnais v. Illinois, in 1952.  A group was posting and distributing flyers in Chicago calling on the Mayor and City Council “‘to halt the further encroachment, harassment and invasion of white people, their property, neighborhoods and persons, by the Negro.This is a decision not ever overturned – on the basis that it was an illegal act as it chose to portray an entire group or class of citizens, as it depicted their lack of virtue, depravity, criminality or chastity and tied those lacks to their race, creed, color, or religion. 

Essentially, by posting those flyers, they are putting out a “calling card’ to others who may quietly believe in the statements, but are not prodded to action because they are not willing to be ‘public’ with their thoughts.  Just like yelling “Fire” in a crowded building, and inciting a panic, the leaflets incite an action, or could in those prone to believe similarly. 

And sadly, with social media, the potential of spreading untruths, polemic and hate are multiplied to the nth degree. The ability to remain ‘anonymous’ or relatively so while you shoot opinions out there, the lack of research or the twisting of actual fact to present as the whole truth all contribute to the decline of logical and rational.

And would it really be so horrible to limit the expression of the KKK marching in your small little town? Remove the legal protection to call a Muslim a terrorist?  Some think it’s a slippery slope into the overly sensitive politically correct bent that the news, the paper and the people have taken.  That Chairperson (and yes – I think that is stupid) is the pc way of discussing a position, and that “height challenged” is better to describe a midget, or differently abled for a paraplegic.  If a word is not loaded with negative connotation, nor used as such, it should not be seen as a negative.  But, there are certain words, certain phrases that are meant ONLY to hurt and demean. 

I don’t use them, not because I am being pc, but because I don’t find them necessary.  I can dislike you for a whole lot of reasons, and not one will relate to your skin colour or your religion.  I am intelligent enough to realize that those two simple differences are only a part of what makes you a person that is either worth or not worth my interest and friendship. But they are not, and never will be, the determining factor for me, in the first or the last thought of potential interaction.  But what all this negative name calling, protected by the First Amendment does is allow those who are driven by fear, driven by self-interest and self-import to continue to spread their message. 

And then it gets to be a slippery slope when you talk about legitimate dissent, versus dissent in a public forum just designed to incite discrimination.  And, it is a discussion well worth having.

 

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