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January 21, 2011

Limiting Free Speech

Joe Charlebois

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has it right! In its post by Laura Murphy on January 13th, the warning to all Americans – specifically legislators – was dead on.


In a nutshell, the former Capitol Hill staffer and now Washington Legislative Office director for the ACLU, gave warning that any form of legislation to curtail First Amendment rights on the heels of the Tucson tragedy would do incredible harm to our constitutional rights to freely express our political opinions.


Unfortunately the attempted assassination of Congressman Gabrielle Giffords (D., AZ) by Jared Lee Loughner has spawned outcries for limits on free speech; for the most part by members of the political left and – unbelievably – the media itself. There is no evidence that Mr. Loughner acted in a way that was politically motivated or was he incited by “hate speech.” Mr. Loughner, it turns out, is either an evil individual or he is simply mentally ill.


In a nation of over 300 million people, there will be people who will do horrific things. We can’t hold groups of people responsible for the acts of one deranged individual.


There is an increased call for civility today as there are those who see the great debates over the past few years as unhealthy. I just don’t see it.


Debate is healthy. If there are true differences in core values and principles, then there will be loud voices. If the call for civility is one’s way of saying we need to compromise and “go along to get along,” then I would rather be uncivil – that is, I wouldn’t give up my core values and principles to make others comfortable. That is how it is done in a one-party society.


There may be political unrest in the United States and political discourse may seem vitriolic at times but incendiary, no.


There have been many times in our country, well before we were born, that were far more divisive and full of hate. We just can’t see it because we didn’t experience it. The years leading up to the Civil War had a far greater level of incivility with many disagreements ending in duels.


The uprisings during the 1960’s showed a much greater level of unrest and the country was split on much greater things – such as the equality of man.


I was fortunate to grow up in an environment when the work of Civil Rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had produced a greater acceptance of a “color-blind society.” Without the First Amendment, would Dr. King have been able to mobilize the citizenry to act and approve the Civil Rights Act of 1964? It is unlikely.


The Sedition Act – An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States – of 1798 is another example of another time when the power of the federal government had citizens arrested and even jailed for simply uttering words of opposition or criticism to the administration of President John Adams.


Even though the Sedition Act is long gone and seen as unconstitutional, there are attempts to revive it on a smaller scale.


Currently there is an attempt to re-institute the Fairness Doctrine as well as implement some aspects of the Federal Communications Commission’s “Net Neutrality” policy, which may have the effect of squashing free speech as the government would control the content of the public airwaves as well as the oversight of the Internet. This could have a devastating effect on the First Amendment, just like the administration of President John Adams’ Sedition Act did.


As Ms. Murphy states in her ACLU post, any response by elected officials to restrict free speech in the wake of this tragedy is not the answer.


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