The recent shooting incident at a “draw the prophet Mohammed” event in Garland, Texas has, once again, started a vehement and contentious debate about the nature of “freedom of speech” in America today and quite frankly it pisses me the hell off. “What, you don’t like freedom of speech debates?” you may ask. And my answer? No. Why? Because time and time again, when these debates have an occasion to come up, America displays over and over that a majority of its citizens slept through Civics class in school and have no idea what the First Amendment is and what it actually means in practice.
Let’s start with the most basic tenet of the First Amendment. There is NO SUCH THING as absolute freedom of speech rights for citizens of the United States of America. Let me repeat: no US citizen has an absolute right to freedom of speech in America. Don’t believe me? What about this whole list of things you can’t say under the law? What about obscenity? Sedition? Threats or incitements of violence? Defamation, including things like libel and slander? Yes, there’s a whole boatload of things you can’t say in America, things that, if said, carry legal consequences with government-imposed sanctions involved, up to and including jail time.
Which leads me to our next civics lesson: FREE SPEECH RIGHTS ARE ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT. PERIOD. The first amendment was crafted for the express purpose of limiting the power of the federal government to enforce its will on the citizenry. That’s all. If some radio jackass says something stupid, homophobic, racist or anti-Semitic, it is NOT a violation of the first amendment if that person is fired from his job due to protests and pressure on advertisers that cause the host’s employer to decide their host’s job isn’t worth the bad press. Sure, he can say what he wants, within the limits of the exceptions to free speech I posted above, but it’s not like he’s immune to any sort of negative reaction to his words, especially since a radio host is really only there to sell advertising space for his employer, not turn sponsors away by alienating the listening audience. Radio, television, and even internet media are a business, not an arm of the government. As private enterprises, it is their prerogative who appears on their air and who does not. And firing someone like Don Imus, for example, because he said something ignorant and seemingly racist, is not an infringement on his first amendment rights, unless you somehow think silencing protests against media figures is somehow NOT a violation of first amendment rights at the same time. Simply put, unless government goons shut a radio or television show down because it was critical of the government (take a look at Soviet Russia or any of the South/Central American dictatorships for examples of this), there’s no first amendment issue in play. Period.
So let’s check your new knowledge with a little quiz that put the facts I just presented into practice, shall we? Let’s say someone makes an art exhibit of the Virgin Mary that is partially made of elephant dung? Is this display, in and of itself, protected from government reprisal by free speech rights or not?
Take a minute if you need to.
Ok so: is the painting itself protected free speech or not? Yes, it is. And the exhibition was indeed allowed to go on, but only after the museum director filed suit in federal court against Mayor Giuliani for a First Amendment violation. The system works.
So, is drawing the prophet Mohammed in a magazine, or having an art exhibition where drawings of him are shown, protected free speech under the law also? You can clearly see that it is, right? And indeed, no government agency or person tried to shut either of these things down.
But two psychos with guns did show up at the exhibition in Garland, didn’t they? You can see, I hope, based on what we just discussed that the mere fact such psychos exist in the country is not an infringement of the First Amendment, right? And it seems fitting that the First Amendment was quite literally applied with lethal force in this case, as an off duty cop working as a security guard shot both would-be attackers dead in their tracks, right? There’s the difference: free speech that simply offends someone’s religious morality: allowed. “Free speech” practiced by idiots pointing guns at people and demanding they shut the shit down? Punishable by death if you’re dumb enough to try it in Texas.
Let’s go on from there. People expressing discomfort and supposing that maybe a Mohammed exhibit was just asking for trouble? That’s not a First Amendment issue either: they’re allowed to victim blame all they like, as long as they don’t end up somehow getting the government to shut down the next exhibition. Oh, and if these same folks stand outside the next exhibition with protest signs? Well that’s THEIR First Amendment rights in action, see?
Here’s the takeaway: anyone can be as racist, as anti-gay, anti-Jewish, anti-Mexican and anti-Islamic as they like. Just take one look at Fox News’ continuing existence for proof of this (I know…rimshot). As long as that person is not arrested the moment their racism, homophobia, or anti-whateverism is made known and persecuted for their beliefs, there is no violation of the First Amendment if it’s suggested that maybe the bigot in question is an idiot with stupid opinions. That’s what the First Amendment is: the right to say stupid shit and to piss off other people with the stupid shit you say. This country needs to spend a lot less time pontificating out loud about who has First Amendment rights and who doesn’t, at least until they crack open a book or two, learn a few things, and demonstrate outwardly that they understand what the wording of the Bill of Rights really means in practice. But then, my saying that doesn’t mean it will happen under penalty of law, and that’s just the way the founders and framers wanted it.