Free speech has been synonymous with America since our founding. Free expression is one of many great things about America. Being able to protest our government without reprisal, going out in public and espousing a particular belief, supporting a candidate (or not supporting a candidate) are all covered by our guiding principles found in our U.S. Constitution. And it is nothing new, after all, the Magna Carta was crafted in 1215.
But what often happens, some people get offended by all of that freedom. Many people are citing President Donald Trump as being highly critical of media outlets who profile him and his administration, as he says, unfairly. At least Trump is not putting them in jail as would Abraham Lincoln. You see, notions of fake news are nothing new in our constitutional republic and those who are offended by someone’s free speech often go down the wrong road of trying to inhibit that speech.
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the notion that simply because someone is offended, it does not limit one’s ability to exercise another’s public speech. When it comes to religion, a government entity can allow religion to come into the government nexus, but it cannot show favoritism to any one religion.
For example, here in Boca Raton, Fla, the city government is considering reversing its historical practice of temporarily allowing religious organizations to put symbols of their religion in city-owned Sanborn Square each December. The reason? Someone chose to exercise his free speech rights and offered a contrasting symbol of the “normal” Christian birth of Jesus and the Jewish menorah. Everything was fine until someone offered an “unpopular” religion, so now it is suddenly being proposed that there will not be any displays permitted. The person behind the Satanic symbol that caused all the controversy last year was making the political statement that the city government should not have been allowing the displays in the first place.
Similarly, many state and local governments would hold a prayer before their official meetings and this is against our Constitution unless they offer different religions the same on a rotating basis. It cannot just be a Christian or Jewish “prayer” before official government meetings, it must be open to all religions. This is what made Chaz Stevens and others around the nation did a couple years ago, as a “minion of Satan” offering his invocation before local government meetings. Most city governments ended the practice of praying before their meetings or have at least opened it up to other religions as to finally be lawful under the U.S. Constitution. Though I can say as a frequent guest at city council meetings, this is not always the case. Stevens was simply trying to point out that the government should not be showing favoritism toward any particular religion and for so long as elected officials inject religion into government, it must be non-discriminatory. Afterall, while Christians and Jews make up a large swath of Americans, a near equal number of Atheists, Islamists, Buddhists, and over 300 other religions make up the rest of America.
We have even heard recent talk that some people should not be allowed on television if they support President Trump or his positions. This type of thinking is the complete opposite of what free speech is all about. Media outlets should offer opposing viewpoints on their television stations and on their websites so the public can decide for themselves what is best. It is not up to news media companies to parse through and edit footage to offer up a particular viewpoint to the general public. It is up to news outlets to offer unbiased information from all sides. This is Journalism 101. But we rarely see that in today’s media and that is unfortunate. American journalism is on life support.
Sadly, we see students being disciplined at schools around the country simply for espousing a contrasting opinion. Ultimately, thanks to organizations such as FIRE, these overboard decisions by school systems are held accountable. But such discipline should not exist for a student simply putting for their opinions. If not on a college campus, then where can a young person get the intellectual growth necessary to be a productive human being exposed to multiple points of view?
Another issue on today’s college campuses seems to be people wanting to shut down debates or speeches by those with opposing views. This has been a dramatic upswing this past year where speakers have been shouted down and physical threats have been made if they step foot on campus. OK, so you disagree with what they are saying; you can choose to not attend or you can attend and then during the Q & A offer your strong objections to what they said. But shouting them down for having an opposing view is clearly un-American and doesn’t help public discourse.
Another local case was T.A. Wyner went up again the Florida parks system, challenging their “bathing suit rule” as being unconstitutional. This, because the rule violates state law which allows one being nude in a public place so long that area has been set aside for that purpose and it is not for sexual reasons. In 2003, Wyner, an avid naturist, held a performance art exhibit in MacArthur State Park which included her being without clothes in violation of the state park’s “bathing suit rule.” Although she was arrested, she took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Wyner should not have been arrested for two reasons, (1) she was actively expressing her first amendment right and (2) she was not violating state law.
So, while there are multitudes of people with which I may disagree, I enjoy exchanging ideas back and forth in a non-threatening, intellectual manner. It has been my experience, this works better than going out protesting a person instead of an issue or idea. Hopefully, when those exchanges happen, we both leave the conversation learning something. This is what free speech is all about in my opinion, and it is sad to see so many people willing to throw such discourse literally in the trash.