Here’s a pet peeve rallying cry of mine. Ever Heard Of Free Speech?
A local newscaster who happens to be an anchor at our Fox affiliate got in some trouble over the last week for calling openly-gay openly-liberal MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow an “angry young man.” News anchor Macke made the comments on her personal Facebook page which, until quite recently, was publicly viewable.
How people react to this falls generally and predictably along ideological lines. But those who defend her often say some variation of the following: “Whatever happened to free speech?”
I hope we can clear up the fallacy of this argument right here.
People arguing for “free speech” are referring to the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:
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.
Ok. So that says that Congress can’t make any laws prohibiting free expression.
Here’s is what the first amendment does not say.
You are allowed to say whatever you want, and no matter what you say, you are exempt from suffering any consequences.
You can say whatever you want, like Juan Williams did, like a marine who started a Facebook page to criticize our President did, or like this woman who called President Obama the n-word and wistfully hoped for his assassination did. All of their actions had consequences.
Being fired or disciplined by your employer for what you say, being shunned by the community for what you say, being uninvited from Thanksgiving dinner for what you say… none of these are examples of violation of free speech.
It goes back to this misunderstood notion of tolerance. Often those who say divisive, unkind things and then are called to account for their statements try to point out the hypocrisy of those who call themselves tolerant. It usually sounds something like this. A Christian calls Islam a dangerous, violent religion. People disagree. His defenders say, “I guess your tolerance only extends to people who agree with you.”
Tolerance, according Merriam-Webster means “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” You’ll note that definition — I may sympathize with your conflicting beliefs. I may indulge you by listening to them. Heck, I even support your First Amendment right to speak them.
However, it does not mean that I abdicate my own right to opine on your opinions.
Tricia Macke, Juan Williams, that Marine, and the woman who posted about President Obama on Facebook have every right (legal and moral) to say what’s on their minds. They also have the responsibility to own their words and to deal with consequences. Just as a note of caution: in this always-on world in which we live, rarely is anything said in a vacuum. As I tell my kids, anything you put on the internet is forever.
When we wave our Constitution around in support of people’s controversial statements, I ask that we all keep in mind that rights and responsibilities are inseparable. Dare I say unalienable?