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Freedom of speech under fire 

Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, repeatedly affirmed the rights of conscience as embodied in the First Amendment's protection of speech, religion, and peaceful assembly. To quote him:

"No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience."

What was Jefferson referring to as "conscience"? Prior to the American Revolution, particularly in the early 1700s and late 1600s, Americans were forced to support churches not of their choosing. In some colonies, ministers of non-approved denominations were imprisoned and even hanged. From the memory of this intolerance came insistence upon a Bill of Rights being included in the newly ratified Constitution.

For 200 years these rights were tested and expanded by the courts into a clearly defined body of law that protected the most important rights of humanity: the right to speak your mind without fear of legal prosecution. It doesn't mean that there won't be social or economic repercussions; others have the right to disagree with your speech and exercise their own First Amendment right by sanctioning your speech via social isolation and vehemently disagreeing with your views while expounding upon their own. Objectionable speech is best opposed by reasoned speech, not by mob violence or censorship by government.

A growing, disturbing trend from a once vigorous defender of free speech emanates from the academic community. A few years ago I attended an event at Cal Poly that hosted Dr. Robert Spencer who specialized in the intellectual fight against radical Islamic Jihad. A number of Cal Poly students attended, most from various social science disciplines. As soon as Spencer began to speak, a number of students angrily left the room as a form of protest against Spencer's message, exercising their disagreement via the First Amendment without, however, hearing a word he had to say. A number of Muslim students remained for Spencer's entire talk, asking pointed questions at the end of the event.

At the end of Spencer's talk a young woman stated that Spencer shouldn't be allowed to speak on college campuses as her First Amendment rights protected her against (what she considered) hate speech. She was a senior, scheduled to graduate in a few weeks, a sad commentary on how indoctrination has replaced critical thinking in our universities. Several attorneys present in the audience proceeded to correct her misinterpretation of the First Amendment, which protects objectionable speech against the tyranny of the majority.

As stated by writer Harry Hutchinson, a growing majority has come to believe, (especially millennials) "free speech is simply any speech that intolerant left-wing mobs disagree with. Rather than truth, they seek confirmation of their own prejudices and biases."

Opinion writer Kathy Riedmann argued in New Times that objectionable groups not be permitted to exercise "free speech rights" in rallies and presumably, in any public forum "but keep [their beliefs] amongst themselves, behind closed doors" ("Speech limits," Aug. 31). This is the antithesis of the origin and intent of the founders. The First Amendment was enacted to protect the rights of conscience and unpopular beliefs from the tyranny of the majority.

Riedmann was wrong on a number of points, emphasizing that speech producing an imminent threat is justification for censorship. The courts actually require not simply an imminent threat but also "a true threat against specific individuals," not just generic expressions of hatred toward specific groups, before speech may be censored. An example is threatening the life of the president, which the courts uphold as warranting prohibition and legal sanctions.

Riedmann cites racist, inflammatory speech being the catalyst as "fighting words" that generated the riots of Charlottesville and that "the prevention of pandemonium should not be on the shoulders of the police. It is asking too much of them and placing them in unnecessary danger." However, the facts revealed it was the failure of the police to keep "antifa" counter-protestors apart from the Klansmen/Nazis that led to the riot. It is absolutely the primary duty of police to maintain order, anticipate conflict, and take appropriate steps to prevent or mitigate violence. Leaving maintenance of order to self-appointed vigilantes like the antifa's lynch-mob justice is a prescription for anarchy and destruction of our democratic republic.

An article by David Cole of the ACLU in the New York Review of Books, (in the upcoming Sept. 28 issue) titled "Why We Must Still Defend Free Speech" provides a sterling defense of First Amendment freedoms and states clearly, "Free speech allows us to resolve our differences through public reason; violence is its antithesis. The First Amendment protects the exchange of views, not the exchange of bullets."

Allowing the government to censor the speech of unpopular groups will inevitably lead to suppression of all views not approved by the government. Δ

Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at

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