Are Americans Abusing Free Speech?

Whenever I think about free speech, I’m always reminded of a line from 1995’s The American President. In this Aaron Sorkin film, Michael Douglas plays charismatic fictional President Andrew Sheppard. During a long speech he delivers towards the film’s conclusion, he addresses free speech by saying…

You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.

Very well said. I could not agree more. While these were words said by a fictional President in a fictional White House, Sorkin was no doubt basing that portion of the speech on Voltaire who said…

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

That’s fine, but what do we do when we eventually come across an opinion we don’t like? I mean, we’re all entitled to our opinion, right? And in this country, we’re all entitled to express that opinion. Well, you could try to regulate it. Or you could just not listen to it, as George Carlin said some years ago…

The FCC, an appointed body, not elected, answerable only to the President, decided all on its own that radio and television were the only two parts of American life not protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Why did they decide that?  Because they got a letter from a reverend in Mississippi!  A Reverend Donald Wildman in Mississippi heard something on the radio that he didn’t like.  But hey reverend there are two knobs on the radio.  One of them turns the radio off and the other one changes the station!  Imagine that reverend, you can actually change the station.  It’s called freedom of choice, and it’s one of the principles this country was founded upon.  Look it up in the library, reverend, if you have any of them left when you’re finished burning all the books!

George is basically saying, if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. Agreed. I have never been in favor of the idea of banning or destroying something simply because some well-funded person or group doesn’t like it.

Alright, so I’ve pretty well covered the listener. But what about the speaker? The speaker has the right to say what they want, but does that right come with any responsibility? Is it possible to abuse free speech? What if their opinion amounts to nothing more than hatred or offensiveness or just plain meanness? You might say that depends on who the audience is; and, by extension, who the speaker is. Are they a private citizen or a very public figure? A very public figure has much more access to a broader audience then a person nobody knows standing on a street corner with a megaphone. But if that person on a street corner has access to just one social media account, their audience goes up exponentially. Add social media to very public figures who had media attention before social media even existed and now we’re really talking about exponentially multiplicative audience reach. That occurrence is what motivated me to write this article.

On last Wednesday’s 700 Club (8/27/2014), Pat Robertson blamed the “God Of The Heathen” for Robin Williams’ August 11th suicide. Basically saying that had Robin Williams come to God, he would not have killed himself. He said…

You see these very popular people in the media who commit suicide like Robin Williams recently and you say, ‘What is the deal with him? What happened?’ You find people who are at the top of the game in music and they’re strung out on drugs. What happened? What was their God?

You see, the god of the heathen are idols, and everything that you seek in life can ruin you unless that something and somebody is God himself.

He can fill your every need, and he won’t disappoint you and you won’t want to commit suicide after you have come to him.

Now, I don’t watch the 700 Club. Never have. There’s an article in the Huffington Post that covered Robertson’s statements. While I do read the Huff, that’s not where I found out about it. It was in my Facebook feed because one of my friends commented on a similar article that was in a different publication. So it quite literally just popped up in front of me. Now, going by my own rules, I should just ignore it if I don’t like it. And I’m fine with doing that. But I have a problem.

The 83-year-old reverend essentially called Robin Williams a heathen. Are you effing kidding me? Robertson is supposed to be a man of God! He is a very prominent Christian with a big microphone and a huge audience. How is calling a man who is no longer alive a name such as “heathen” even remotely helpful? How does it help Robin Williams’ family grieve for him? (they probably have the makings of a good slander suit) What does it accomplish other than to demonstrate AGAIN Robertson’s willingness to use a national tragedy to further his own agenda and increase his ratings all in the name of God and religion? And speaking of religion, doesn’t Robertson’s religion tout, “Judge not lest ye be judged?” Yep, it does; in the Bible in the book of Matthew. So isn’t the good reverend committing blasphemy by judging Robin Williams? Not to mention the total hypocrisy of a man who’s net worth from his “preaching” is somewhere between $200 Million and $1 Billion, depending on the source you check, accusing a beloved man who’s enormous talent brought him fame and fortune, of worshiping the wrong God because of his aforementioned fame and fortune. I think you’d better check which God YOU are worshiping, Reverend. And if, somehow, you happen to read this article, I invite you to contact me so we can discuss it. I certainly don’t wish you any harm but a good “Gibbs Slap” to the back of the head […NCIS reference] might do you a world of good. But I digress.

What I’m saying is that while I don’t think we should start curtailing free speech, we need to start thinking about what we say and who will ultimately be exposed to it. That goes from what goes on inside our own homes to what the most public of public figures say. It’s about thinking more globally and seeing past our own noses. It’s about taking a beat and thinking about how what you say will affect others. Let me give you a much more basic example. If you’re chopping something in the kitchen and you are maybe going too fast and accidentally give yourself a deep cut, is someone saying to you, “I told you to be careful” of any help to you whatsoever? No. You simply don’t need that. What you do need is a bandage or perhaps a ride to the emergency room.

My father always says, “think before you speak.” Wise words. The fact that we have the ability to express our opinion doesn’t necessarily mean that we always have to. If we feel we must, then we should all think about how we do it; especially if it comes from a public figure. Are we helping or hurting? Are we making a meaningful contribution to the conversation or are we just shooting our mouths off? We have slander and libel laws but we don’t have common sense laws. And quite frankly, we shouldn’t need common sense laws. But I caution you, if we aren’t careful, one day we will have them. And we won’t like it. But nobody will know that because we won’t be allowed to say so. Freedom of speech is precious. Don’t abuse it.

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