Introduction – Around the World, Freedom of Expression Is Not Taken for Granted – It’s Forbidden and Punished Severely
The Center for Inquiry (CFI) has created Campaign for Free Expression. It is an initiative designed to focus attention on one of the most basic and foundational human rights: the freedom to speak. This universal right is the foundation of liberty but it does not exist in most parts of the world, as a visit to the CFI campaign website will show.
We are fortunate in America. In this country, free speech is one of five freedoms set forth in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; the others address religion (both of and from), the press, peaceable assembly and petitioning for redress of grievances. In application to specific cases and forms of expression, all are complex and subject to interpretation, which courts have done for over two centuries.
All that aside for the moment, where do you stand? How do you interpret freedom of speech in practical terms applied to sample cases? I have a little exercise to help you assess how you lean from one extreme to another.
A REAL Wellness Continuum
I’m pleased to offer a little REAL wellness free speech continuum. It consists of five situations related to actual events intended to evoke degrees of support for either a reluctant, conservative take on speech to a position of absolute support for all forms of it. The range may not be as polar as would be taken by say, postal inspector Anthony Comstock at one end or First Amendment champion James Madison at the other, but there is a big difference between the two extremes.
For each of the following five cases, please indicate your position on a scale of one to three. Let one represent the strongest possible reluctance to allow speech in the case described; three on the other hand signals the strongest possible support for unfettered speech.
For example, assume that one Sunday morning during the annual Red Mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Matthew’s the Apostle in Washington, DC (attended by six of the nine Supreme Court justices), a three-girl band with the provocative name Pussy Riot deviates from their assigned choir hymn Ave Maria, and instead breaks loose with a rousing rock version of their own hymn, Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Chase Antonin Scalia Away.
If you strongly oppose any claim to consider such an action consistent with a free speech, you would assign this statement a 1. However, If you think this form of expression, whether over-the-top or not and no matter how outrageous, as speech that must be protected, you would go with 3.
(Note: This continuum is not intended to measure what you think is in good taste or not, or even what is appropriate expression.Also, the matter of whether the girls in the example given should be kicked out of the Cathedral choir or the Catholic Church, for that matter, is irrelevant to your rating for purposes of this continuum. Make your rating only on the basis of whether a person or group in the five situations below should have a right to the speech in question without fear of obstruction or prosecution by civil authorities.)
The REAL Wellness Freedom of Speech Self-Assessment Continuum
A French TV host created an uproar with a joke about a Japanese soccer player that referenced the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The host said the goalkeeper’s performance was such that it must have been due to the Fukushima effect. A superimposed graphic depicted the player with four arms.
Rate your support or opposition as to the host’s right to have done this on the three – point scale – 1 if you believe no right of free speech, 2 if not sure one way or the other and 3 if you very much support the TV host’s right to say what he said. ______
2. Fred Phelps heads the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church which, since 1991, has staged anti-gay, anti-Jew, etc. protests at military funerals and other public events in order to gain media attention for their hugely unpopular extremist views.
Rate your support or opposition as to the group’s right to protest as they do. Use the three-point scale: ______
3. A judge recently ruled that the transportation authority in New York City had violated the free speech rights of a pro-Israel group by refusing to run a bus ad that read, In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad. In Washington, the transportation authority rejected ads on the flip side of this dispute – anti-Israel ads were banned. Across the country, many jurisdictions have refused to post ads from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) that communicate secular positions (e.g., Ban Marriage Between and State).
Rate your support or opposition as to a group’s right to place such ads on public transportation, billboards, etc. on the three-point scale: ______
4. Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany and several other democratic European countries.
Rate your support or opposition to such laws on the three-point scale: ______
5. Do you favor unrestricted access to public information as a right that should be available to adults in public libraries? A lawsuit has been brought by library patrons in Eastern Washington that seeks to ensure access lawful information on the Internet. The suit challenges the library system’s rigid policy of using a restrictive Internet filter to bar access to information on its computers or to honor requests by adult users to temporarily disable the filter uncensored reading and research.
Rate your support for or opposition to the rights of library users to access lawful information on public library equipment on the three-point scale: ______
Interpretation of Your Score
Total your points. What does the resulting score tell you? Well, if you did not score 15, it suggests you’re no Ingersoll when it comes to passion for liberty and free expression. Everyone favors speech they agree with; the loyalty test for this jewel of liberty is a willingness to stand up for speech at odds with your own, including the unpopular variety that offends, repulses or seems stupid, obnoxious and daft.
I believe a REAL wellness perspective on speech is one of unconditional support for the freedom of anyone to say anything about everything. We are and should remain free to deny the Holocaust, gods and dogmas, elves and Santa Claus – all of it. In my view, what is sacred to some need not be respected by others. Good manners are wonderful and every effort should be made to educate both young and old to be considerate of others. Kindness is vital to civil society but it must be valued, not enforced. We need the freedom to say, write and otherwise profess factually incorrect nonsense. An example that comes to mind is creationism – while it merits no place in science classrooms, we ought to embrace the right of anyone so inclined to profess it. How else to get it out there in the light of day where it can be assessed – and reassessed in light of alternative explanations? Same goes for all other forms of foolishness. The REAL wellness angle is that jejune speech can render yet another form of pleasure at human foibles – that’s why we so enjoyed George Carlin and why today we revel in the dissections of the ludicrous by Bill Maher, Andy Borowitz and others.
Let’s hear out what appears to be arrant nonsense. None of it deserves a moment’s stress. Don’t get mad – just have a laugh. It’s all there for our amusement. It’s not so much that people are stupid – it’s only some of their utterances that are lame and benighted.
Support everyone’s freedom to safeguard your own, particularly the speech rights of those who say things that repel. The inanity of nonsensical or even hateful speech can provide an form of dark mirth and even remind us of the cosmic reality of ultimate meaninglessness. What meaning there is comes from what you invent. That’s what gives life purpose and infuses our days with love and community. People of all persuasions say and do dumb stuff all the time, present company included. Groping about, looking for a little exuberance and ways to feel important and meaningful distract us from the gloom and doom. Best to look for boundless little pleasures that must at times include a touch of wicked irreverence as safeguards against piety and sanctimoniousness. Freedom of speech is a self-esteem issue, a survival issue and ultimately a REAL wellness quality of life issue.
I look forward to your comments.
All good wishes. Be well and truly free.