Hey, everybody, it’s Free Speech Week! Let’s repeal the First Amendment!
As offensive as most Americans might find the above paragraph — especially this week — the right to utter such unpopular ideas is the very thing currently being celebrated.
Sheree Josephson is chairwoman of the department of communication at Weber State University in Ogden. She teaches communication law at the school, and assures us that we have every right to attempt to make the ironic public case for severely curtailing free speech.
“Absolutely, that’s covered,” Josephson said. “You have the right to say that, 100 percent.”
And that’s the beauty of our form of government, according to Tom Terry, professor of journalism and communication at Utah State University in Logan.
“The most radical three words in political philosophy and history are ‘We the people,’ ” he said. “No other country, no other system, has been founded on the idea that it’s the people who rule.”
And the only way this rule of the people works, Terry said, is if everyone has the right — without being hindered or controlled by government, business or other groups — to join in on a discussion of the issues that are important to us.
“That doesn’t happen without a free-speech system, without the ability to say whatever you want, and not worry about a knock on the door in the middle of the night,” Terry said. “People in Paraguay, people in Myanmar, people in North Korea — I mean, I could spend all afternoon giving all the places that people don’t have that right. We can say whatever we want about our politicians and whatever issues we’re interested in, and there’s minimal repercussions to us.”
The only real repercussion, Terry said, is that others might disagree with what we’re saying, and say so.
As a prime example of the power of being able to speak our mind, Terry points to the time, six or seven years ago, that President Barack Obama attended a town hall meeting in Wyoming. At the meeting, a man in the back of the room stood up and said, “Mr. President, I believe in the Constitution, and I don’t think you do.”
“In 200 other countries, you’d have never heard from that guy again,” Terry marveled. “And yet, here he’s able to challenge the most powerful man in the world, and get away with it. That’s what sets us apart from the vast majority of the world. Our complete commitment to free speech.”
The city of Farmington ran afoul of the First Amendment this summer over its “Free Speech Zone” ordinance. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city after animal-rights activists were charged for protesting without a permit outside Lagoon. The charges were later dismissed, and Farmington suspended enforcement of the ordinance.
Free Speech Week takes place during the third full week of October each year, designed to “raise public awareness of the importance of free speech in our democracy — and to celebrate that freedom,” according to the freespeechweek.org website. This year’s event runs Oct. 19-25.
Observance of the annual celebration isn’t widespread, and it crept up on a lot of people this year. Josephson admits she didn’t even realize what week it was.
“I know Constitution Week was several weeks ago, but I didn’t realize there was a separate Free Speech Week,” she said.
However, Josephson redeemed herself with her very next thought:
“It’s free speech every week,” she deadpanned.
Terry said our entire way of life “hinges on free speech.”
Former U.S. Supreme Court associate justice William J. Brennan Jr. once said there’s no such thing as a bad idea, according to Terry.
“It may not be a supported one, it may be stupid, it may be ill-informed,” Terry said. “But all ideas are worthy of being discussed in a rational, reasoned, dispassionate discussion. And then, in the marketplace of ideas, if it’s found to be an unpopular one or stupid one, it gets thrown out.”
Of course, our right to speak our mind doesn’t come without certain responsibilities. Aside from not being able to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, you also can’t say defamatory, untrue things about others, Josephson said. Child porn isn’t protected by the First Amendment, either. Or obscenity.
“So there are some kinds of speech that aren’t protected,” Josephson said.
But others are. Like hate speech. Which, Josephson said, allows groups like Westboro Baptist Church to say things that the overwhelming majority of us find repulsive. If we’re going to believe in free speech, she said, we “pretty much have to totally buy into” the entire idea.
“I mean, we let people be as stupid as they want for the most part,” Josephson said. “If you’re going to support free speech, you also have to support the speech that you might personally hate. Because the speech you love might be what’s on the chopping block next week.”
Terry said that’s the toughest part — supporting freedom of speech for the speech that we find offensive.
“Famous people have said, ‘I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,’ ” Terry said. “We have to accept that you can say horrible, awful things and disagree with me, and I celebrate it.”
Winston Churchill once said the cure for all the evils of democracy is more democracy. Free speech works the same way, according to Terry.
“The cures for any worries we have about speech — and whether you can say this or that — is more speech,” he said. “As soon as you get into the business of saying who can’t say this, that or the other thing, it’s the short road to a bad end.”
Josephson “can’t even fathom” what her world would be like without the freedom of expression.
“I don’t think our democracy could function if we didn’t have the right to express our opinions on issues of public concern,” she said. “It’s critically important — at least it is to me.”
Josephson said she’s visited many places where speech isn’t free, and the importance of guaranteeing that right quickly becomes glaringly obvious.
“Until you’re away from it, I think most of us just take it for granted on a daily basis,” Josephson said. “We can criticize the president — we can criticize the government — without fear of being imprisoned.
“And yes,” she added, “you can even call for the repeal of the First Amendment.”