Is free speech a right? Can we say whatever we want whenever we want wherever we want? While some may impulsively answer affirmatively, allow me to suggest we first pause for a moment. For example, according to the popular paraphrase of the infamous 1919 Supreme Court decision, “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” is illegal, assuming the claim is dangerous and false.
But I’m wondering if in this seemingly polarizing, digressing day and age, if the right of free speech whenever and wherever we want is based more on the substance of the speech — and the “speaker of the speech” — as opposed to the purported individual liberty.
I think of the desire to squelch some speech — a desire with which I must transparently acknowledge that at times, the Intramuralist will also wrestle…
… such as in Sunday’s post, acknowledging that there are those who passionately wish to silence the name and praise and mere mention of God. Does free speech exist if it includes reference or — dare I suggest — submission to an omniscient deity? Certainly not in schools. In government? In the prayers before Congress each day? In the Pledge? I’m wondering, too, about taking God’s name publicly in vain. Is that free speech — even in school?
… I think of the Westboro Baptist Church, a little group of loud people hailing from Topeka, Kansas. Perhaps you’ve heard of them; they like to protest at military funerals and other sensitive places with very strong, disrespectful anti-gay rhetoric; they’ve continued protesting this week. Now I’ve met many I respect who sensitively believe that homosexuality is inconsistent with God’s ideal, but I’ve met no one who supports the approach and messaging of this cruel, seemingly merciless church.
But back to the dilemma of free speech… is it our right? … does a cruel, merciless church have the right to say whatever they want, marching outside the memorial of a fallen soldier in front of his or her grief-stricken family?
Truthfully, I have a hard time with that one. So much of me wells up inside, saying, “How dare they!” The quandary is what speech do we believe should be free. Insensitivity has thus far not been a prohibitor of the practice.
… What about 911? … another date that is deeply emotional for all Americans? Do people have a right to say whatever they want wherever they want on that day?
On Tuesday, in both Egypt and Libya, Islamist groups violently attacked the U.S. embassies. There are currently unconfirmed reports that the violence was coordinated and intentional. In Cairo, several scaled the walls, tearing down the American flag, proclaiming “no God but Allah” and alliance with Osama Bin Laden. In Libya, the American ambassador to the country was tragically killed.
The reported reason for the violence was the Muslims’ anger at a single video being produced in the United States that they feel insults the prophet Mohammed. So question: why the protest on that particular day? Were the protestors somehow unaware that it was the anniversary of the Twin Towers fall?
Nonetheless, very quickly, before an awareness of injury or death, the American embassy in Egypt actually released this statement in regard to the video:
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” [emphasis mine]
The U.S. embassy was speaking of the Americans’ abuse of free speech via the video-making, as opposed to addressing the riotous conduct of the protestors. So again I ask the question: do we have the right to say whatever we want whenever we want wherever we want? … and let me add, however we want?
It seems each of our support and sensitivity depends most on the subject… and on who’s speaking.