U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black put it this way: “Freedom of speech means that you shall not do something to people either for the views they have, or the views they express, or the words they speak or write.”
The price Americans pay for free speech is this: You’re free to hold and express any opinion you want without fear of persecution. In return, you must tolerate the expression of opinions you may find abhorrent. If unpopular opinions are fair game for persecution, free speech becomes dependent on the whim of the majority.
The cost of this freedom is cheap if we all had the same opinion. Or, if differing opinions cause us no discomfort. Our commitment to free speech is tested and validated when we hold fast to our principles even though our natural urge is to force the proponent of abhorrent ideas to just shut up.
John Stuart Mill put it this way: “If all mankind, minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
Put another way, there are no innocent bystanders when free speech is under attack. Even if the onlooker is neutral in a hotly contested battle of ideas, that onlooker is bound to weigh in if one side or the other seeks to punish the opponent for lawful expression of opinion. We all have an obligation to speak in defense of freedom of expression even if we agree with the opinions of the oppressors.
If American citizens stand idle when our courts employ the force of government to silence the lawful expression of opinion, everyone’s freedom of speech is at risk. If American citizens remain passive when bullies and ideologues seek to silence the expression of ideas, those citizens are betraying a sacred trust. As Justice Holmes observed, “The very aim and end of our institutions is just this: That we may think what we like and say what we think.”
Recently, we’ve seen an alarming growth in instances of blatant assaults on free speech. There’s a rising tendency among certain quarters to use noisy intimidation, threats of violence, economic sanctions and loud distractions in orchestrated campaigns calculated to smother opposing viewpoints.
Earlier this month, pursuant to a ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, students at Live Oak high school in Morgan Hill, Calif., were prohibited, by school authorities, from wearing clothing decorated with the United States flag. According to those authorities, this prohibition was necessary because some faction among the student body threatened violence if their classmates were permitted to carry out this display of national pride. In this case, the bullies were appeased by sacrificing the free-speech rights of their classmates.
In April, Brandeis University withdrew its offer to confer an honorary degree on women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and “uninvited” her to attend its graduation exercises to serve as the commencement speaker. Brandeis’ cowardly behavior in this regard was done to appease a vocal group of intolerant ideologues who objected to certain opinions Ali expressed in the past.
More recently, a group of noisy, intolerant bullies threatened to disrupt the commencement exercises at Rutgers University if Condoleezza Rice attended as the commencement speaker. The administration and student body of Rutgers were unable to muster enough moral strength to counteract this shameful display of intolerance. Rice, in order to avoid the threatened disruption, withdrew from the spectacle.
There is a growing “Canon” of accepted opinion that must not be contradicted. Anyone foolhardy enough to question this “Canon” does so at the risk of generating a near hysterical backlash of intolerance. There are certain groups of “unpopular” opinions that will draw swift and merciless punishment if expressed in public. We all know there are categories of “approved” opinions concerning matters of race, religion, sexual orientation and social relationships that, no matter how arrived at, must never be openly expressed. There are approved opinions on these subjects that may be expressed by one group but are forbidden to another.
At the dawn of this nation’s history, George Washington observed, “If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.”
American citizens are in the coils of those who are gradually constricting our freedom of speech, religion and pursuit of happiness. Unless the people shake off these coils, they will find themselves the lowly servants of the government and the forces of intolerance. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.