Think About It: The cost of free speech

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America is the powerful statement of the values of our country.

“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.”

Think about it. There are very few exceptions; one prohibiting shouting “fire” in a theater when there is not a fire. A person isn’t jailed or fined for speaking threats of violence, but such threats may result in an investigation of intent or, in some cases, a restraining order.

We talk about it all the time. There are many examples of times when we disagree, fight or go to court over our strong feelings of drawing a line between free speech and harassment. These are not easy problems to solve.

Think about the rulings that allowed protesters to shout at women going into Planned Parenthood but required the protesters to stay at a certain distance from the women. The latter, by the way, is still in play despite a 2014 Supreme Court Ruling that struck down a Massachusetts’ law requiring a 35-foot buffer zone. States and other local governments are applying somewhat smaller buffer zones.

Freedom of speech is the core of the argument, but according to the 2014 Supreme Court decision, we also have the right to have our free speech heard if we speak from public space.

Protesters want to be close enough to be heard and be allowed to use public space like sidewalks to stand. The 2014 Supreme Court opinion agreed that forbidding use of public space “… burden(s) substantially more speech than necessary.”

What a fascinating argument.

Typically, we have a choice to listen or not listen by turning to another venue or walking away.

Politically incorrect, or mean-spirited or strategic?

Our President is a very clever marketer, especially in his use of short phrases to create an environment in which he promotes a breakdown of societal norms. He famously coined “politically incorrect speech” early in his campaign as a way of creating an environment in which he could characterize his opponents (real or not) using any words or characterizations he chose.

And, I suppose, to avoid stuffy old decency in political discourse.

Speaking personally, I haven’t quite recovered from the assertion that decency and civil discourse are defined by some as “politically correct,” instead of as a standard of behavior. That definition being espoused by no less than the President of the United States.

I’m still astonished when people cheer a president who demands “fire the S*O*B*s” when speaking of the black NFL players who knelt during the singing of our national anthem in protest of police shootings of young black men.

The President is right in that a corporation or employer can fire individuals who violate company policy but seems it to me there is a better way to make the point. Since I think he is smart enough to know that, I can only believe his insults to the players, their cause, and their mothers were intended to shock people like me and rally some of his like-minded followers.

Of course, the President is ignoring his own disregard of one of the tenets of the First Amendment implied in his statement. I doubt that was his intention, rather, his goal is to separate us into opposing groups.

Each time he inflames his crowd, he deepens the divide that is threatening the core our very democracy that is an egalitarian society.

How do we, as a democracy, survive when our leader uses words as a weapon with the intention of minimizing or making inferior another human being or entire group of people?

The bully pulpit becomes just that, a bully, and we are brought into a joyless circus of taunts intended to humiliate or destroy someone. Witness the interchange that occurred (may still be occurring) between the former director of the FBI and the President, following the release of the director’s book.

“Small hands and orange skin.” “Sleaze ball.” Most of the school yard mudslinging was hardly original and definitely not “politically correct” or civil or decent or mature.

But it’s free

We are a different country, about as heterogeneous as a country can be. We are multi-cultural from multi-origins. Everyone is a target in this circus. Don’t believe you’re not.

The common wit is that we shouldn’t be surprised that our President makes fun of social norms that allow diverse groups in gender, race, religion to co-exist by using peaceful means to solve differences.

I am less surprised that he does it than there are some of us who clap and cheer him every time he robs someone or group of their identity as an American.

Wasn’t Rome a democracy under the Senatus and populusque of Romanus (The Senate and People of Rome, SPQR)? A democracy that became an empire when democracy lost its importance to the people. Of course, it’s a much more complicated story but there are indications that the people gradually gave up rights and finally land without resistance until the empire fell of its own rudderless weight.

We have a pro-business, anti-government, transactional President whose greatest thrill is to demean others in front of cheering crowds. He sells hats and hate, the latter being free.

I would never suggest that he or others should be denied free speech or assembly. I love our Constitution and I love our country. I long for a leader that believes in and depoliticizes the strong democratic values expressed in our constitution and asks our citizens to respect them as the foundation of our democracy.

To do otherwise, is to mock all of it – Constitution, country, democracy – just like our President.

Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years.