On Freedom of Speech


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Julie E. Creech

Hypatia Society

The most basic component of freedom of expression is the right of freedom of speech. The right to freedom of speech allows individuals to express themselves without interference or constraint by the government. The Supreme Court requires the government to provide substantial justification for the interference with the right of free speech where it attempts to regulate the content of the speech. A less stringent test is applied for content-neutral legislation. The Supreme Court has also recognized that the government may prohibit some speech that may cause a breach of the peace or cause violence. The right to free speech includes other mediums of expression that communicates a message.

-Legal Information Institute-

A few weeks ago my stepfather, who was an apartment maintenance person, informed me that any person who expresses racist statements that are heard by a potential landlord must be denied housing if the said housing is subsidized by the government.

I personally believe that racism is an awful and evil thing, but as an American I also believe in the Constitution of the United States. The first amendment to the US Constitution begins with the right to free speech and then the separation of church and state. To pass any law that creates punishment for a certain world view is to irreparably damage the power of our most powerful laws and the very basis of our legal system.

In my life I have learned a bit about the Constitution of my country, and I have also had the opportunity to see the rise of a philosophy of society which seems to disregard some very basic rights. This philosophy is the movement commonly described as political correctness, and this movement scares me more than any physical danger I can conceive.

I am considered by many to be a staunch conservative because I disagree with the application of political correctness in constitutional law, and among most people my age being a conservative is viewed as something like moral treason. I have been widely disliked and criticized for my views on the law but this criticism has only strengthened my beliefs.

The fact is that I agree with many of the tenets of being P.C.. I believe that women should have the right to choose what occurs within their own bodies, I have an intense dislike for chauvinistic and otherwise bigoted opinions, and I believe that people have a moral responsibility to be kind to one another. I also believe that the differing views of the public create more strength within our country than most people understand, that there is a place for every thought, even the most misguided, that education is the only effective weapon against hatred and ignorance, and that the curbing of thought and expression is the worst move we could ever make.

Among many of the individuals who grow the most angry at my views, an emotional response is the basis of their thoughts. They feel like it is wrong to be racist, they feel like it is morally incorrect to believe that women are inferior to men, and I feel just like they do, but our system of laws is not meant to be amended by emotion because emotional rules are based in the realm of morality (IE religious belief).


The freedom of belief is what I love most about this country, and the one thing that separates us from most of the rest of the world. I have had the pleasure of meeting many people from other countries and my understanding of the thought processes many of them are taught makes me love my country even more.

You see, the most frightening thing Ive ever encountered is the suffocation of independent thought, a friend of mine from the middle east, a genius even, was completely incapable of questioning the widely accepted beliefs of his country.

Our argument was about the issue of female circumcision, and his beliefs on the issue were shaped by the traditional practice of this horror within his community and espoused by his mother. He told me that it was healthful for girls. He told me it was a religious necessity, and he told me that it was, as in male circumcision, the removal of a dirty part of the body.

For several years we continued our debate, I would show him medical evidence to prove the debilitating effects of this operation. I showed him that in boys circumcision involved removal of skin, while in girl it involved at least partial removal of nerves. I even obtained extensive religious evidence that made clear the lack of necessity of this practice, and yet in the end his words made me sadder even than his belief. He told me, I understand the proof youve shown me, I see that it is harmful and likely sacrilegious, but I cannot, will not believe that it is not the right thing to do for my daughters. This is the way it has been for thousands of years and I have no right to question such tradition.

I stood in shock at the statement he had made. I was hurt that he planned to harm his daughters, even though he believed that it might be wrong, but more than that I simply felt sorry for him because he felt he shouldnt question commonly held beliefs. I have, since that time, concluded that it is a very American trait to so heartily challenge the beliefs of our parents, and I have come to understand that the basis of our desires to question and investigate beliefs is our freedom to do so.

In the history of humanity the idea of freedom of thought and expression is very new. The ability to publicly show discontent is new, and the lack of repercussions for independent thought, previously known as being a trouble maker, is perhaps one of the best measures of our growth as humans. The public and governmental censorship of ideas and dissent is as old as people are, and perhaps it would be easy to fall back into, as old habits often are, but the age of ideas offers them no validity under the constitution of our country.

If commonly held morality, or the argument of tradition, old or new, were allowed to dictate the interpretation of the constitution we would never have progressed to a society where women have the right to vote, where slavery is illegal, and where children have protection from abuse.

All of these freedoms and protections directly oppose the beliefs of tradition, and often common opinion. Slavery has been a common practice throughout the world, and throughout human history. Women have been subjugated, abused, controlled and subdued for thousands of years, and if you need to see how difficult that is to change when you aren't allowed to think freely just look at Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and other strict Arab nations. The thought of granting society the right to interfere with a parents authority over their children is something no one would have considered years ago, except in the case of royal decree. So it is only by virtue of our freedom to express and believe, that we have come to a place in society where the children of our nation have the same fundamental right to safety as their parents do

It is the very objectivity of our Constitution that protects us from the ranting of the racist past, and gives us the right to continue to fight against the injustice of traditions that are outdated and unfair. Without the freedom to express our views publicly, and engage in discussion about often sensitive issues, our ability to judge and weigh the truth would be greatly impaired.

Any decision that is made without possession of all available information is potentially unsafe and absolutely premature. The fact that some evidence is unpopular, offensive, irrational or unbelievable will only add power to the truth. An illustration of this point can be seen in the historical issue of the witch trials. At the time of these trials the freedom of speech was superceded by the perceived danger of witchcraft, thus it became dangerous to support or present evidence that could be seen as assisting an accused witch. The system of judgment was set up so that a person accused of being a witch was inevitably going to be branded and killed as such unless they confessed and repented. The fact is that there were many individuals who disagreed with the witch trials, but they were kept from objecting or raising concerns about the issue by a very real fear for their own safety.

Today, I sometimes perceive a climate that reminds me of the oppression that reigned during that dark moment of our history. I see that it is unpopular to disagree with the emotional appeals of the compassionate left, I see that I have lost friends because I refuse to be cowed by the pressure of popular opinion, and I wonder if my desire to have objectivity and lack of emotion in our legal system will harm my chances for succeeding in the world I have been born into.

In the history of mankind it has been ever dangerous to go against the wave of commonly held beliefs. Under the control of Hitler, and other dictators, free thought was punishable by death, and today it appears that holding unpopular opinions commonly costs people their livelihoods or even homes. I hope that we will, as a nation, see the danger in the restriction of ideas, and realize that it is not possible to have freedom of expression, if it doesnt also apply to unpopular opinions.

Genius is mainly an affair of energy.
Matthew Arnold