I think when most people think about the first amendment, they think in terms of the speaker. Who gets to speak? Free speech. Freedom of expression. Everyone gets to say whatever the fuck they want. Cuz this is ‘Merica.
I’ve been thinking about free speech a lot since this administration took office, as many of us have. All the shit we’ve had to listen to and read and see, has made me and others think about who gets to talk and what should or shouldn’t be said in public.
You get to a point, if you haven’t already, when you have to question the very value of free speech. Is it worth it to have racists marching around with torches and saying stupid, threatening shit? Is it worth it to have posters pasted up in colleges bemoaning the oppression of white men. “You’re not alone, white dudes!” I’ve always just assumed that free speech was a good thing. But I’ve started to myself ask why.
Is it a good thing to have unrestrained speech? Should speech be free?
Now, instead of thinking in terms of people who talk a lot, I imagined a person who doesn’t talk much. The common consumer of speech, which is most of us, don’t talk that much and we certainly don’t have a microphone or a pod cast or a national news channel or a column in The New York Times or a job at a media outlet to amplify our speech when we do speak. Most of us, most of the time, just listen. We might have a blog. We may make comments on Facebook. But really the reach of the common person’s speech is limited. Mostly we listen (and watch and read) to others with the power of greater reach.
The freedom of speech, therefore, has a corollary right: the freedom to listen. There would be no need to legislate speech if there was no one to hear it or see it or read it.
So when we think about free speech, we as listeners should think about whether or not we want the freedom to hear and see and read whatever is put out there, whether we want to be free to take it in, free to have access.
But here’s the flip side of freedom in general. There’s responsibilities that comes with it. You learn that shit as you go from being a toddler to being a grown up. If you are a grown up, then you know that freedoms come with responsibilities. If you don’t know that then you’re not a grown up.
And what is the responsibility of the freedom to listen? It is the responsibility to respond to those who exercise free speech. If you hear stuff or read stuff or see stuff that would jeopardize life and liberty, that makes free speech possible for you or for any other human, you have to speak up. That is the responsibility of the freedom to listen. You have to exercise the First Amendment in order to keep the First Amendment.
Take for instance what happened at the University of Florida recently when Richard Spencer came to speak on campus. I think it would have been a perfectly legitimate response to deny him access to the school. We all know what he’s going say. Youtube the motherfucker. We know his message. Refusing to let him speak his bullshit is a way of calling out his bullshit. However, allowing him to speak and then showing up to answer him directly was, I think, even more powerful an exercise of freedom of speech. He was mocked and booed and asked humiliating, rhetorical questions. He was shunned off stage.
You need to answer bullshit. You need to shout it down and say, that’s bullshit. You need to channel your Princess Nokia and throw lukewarm yellow soup on bullshit. You need to protest and call your community leaders and write letters and have difficult conversations with people in your life who talk bullshit.
There’s an article today on CBC News about how the province of Ontario has now passed legislation that makes it illegal for people to protest right outside abortion clinics. This is interesting. On one side there is the first amendment that give you the right to access public space to protest. The other side is the protection of a woman’s right to access her right to an abortion. A right that is made difficult to access is no right at all. So the Ontario government is trying to balance the right to access for both sides. The protesters can still gather and tell women they are sinners and murders, but they can do it only 50-150 meters (a width of a football field to one and quarter length of a football field) from clinics and from the homes of clinic employees. The right to access public services has been balanced with right to access public spaces. I think it’s debatable. There was one dissenting vote on the legislation and a valid one, I think. I think I would have dissented, also. I would rather see an equal and opposing response to these anti-abortion protesters by those who are pro-choice. And before you go thinking I’m not being sensitive to women seeking abortions, I’ve had an abortion. I was accosted outside the clinic with pamphlets about how I could still save my unborn child. It was upsetting.
The thing is, you cannot, as they say, have your cake and eat it too. Speech that upsets you, chills you, speech that affronts your sense of community and country, speech that threatens your safety that wants you dead even, or wants other people around you dead, is still just speech. Threatening hateful speech. But the response to this can’t be keeping it from being heard. The answer is to answer it back vigorously and consistently with conviction backed up with knowledge.
And yeah, that’s fucking exhausting. Can you imagine showing up to your local abortion clinic to answer the crazy religious motherfuckers with their posters showing pictures of aborted fetuses and shouting at you “murderer!” and “baby killer!” every day? I can’t do it. Not alone. The bullshit is coming down like rain these day and answering it is like trying to catch every drop before it hits the ground. They just keep coming at you, pushing and pushing at the limits of patience, decency, morality, and safety.
But what did we think freedom of speech was? A stroll in Central Park in autumn? Being an undergrad on campus and your professors giving you trigger warnings? Warm bread? A Shetland sweater? This isn’t fucking Strawberry Shortcake land, little boys and girls. This is the land of the free. And when you’re free, you gotta be woke and working that freedom every fucking day.
If there has been anything to be learned from the daily assault on the norms of personal and political conduct in this country since the 45th administration took office, it is that laws and norms are only as robust and effective as the people willing to uphold them. To speak up when these motherfuckers pull bullshit and spout bullshit. The only thing between us and the destruction of freedom these bullshit motherfuckers seek is regular people who enjoy the freedoms to call out bullshit.
So, should there be unrestrained speech? I think that’s the wrong question. The question should be, should we have access to all ideas–dumb, smart, evil, good, right, wrong, beautiful, ugly, soporific, stimulating, frightening, and threatening? Yes. This isn’t just the land of the free. It is the home of the brave. I think it’s no accident that those two lines exist side by side in the US national anthem. Freedom requires guts. You want freedom, get guts. And should speech be free? First of all, there ain’t nothing for free in this world. And second of all, next time you hear somebody exercising their right to free speech to attack another person’s freedom to life and liberty and pursuit of happiness, get the fuck up and take responsibility and exercise your right to free speech and you make them take responsibility for theirs. Make them pay for it. Throw shade. Throw lukewarm soup.