Right to freedom of speech defended
April 20, 2007
It is funny how important moments tend to happen.
On Monday morning, I woke up feeling quite ill and so I stayed home instead of going to my 8 a.m. lab.
As I held my post on the couch and drifted in and out of sleep, I could not help hearing intense debate on every morning talk show about the recent firing of Don Imus over a racial remark he made. This troubles me on many levels.
First of all, what he said was appalling and ignorant. He makes it clear that racial tension still resides in our country. Aside from this fact, what caused me the most trepidation is the complete disregard for the First Amendment.
All Americans have the right to freedom of speech.
This is a guarantee that no one can take away. But, with Imus's firing, can it?
Yes, what he said was sick, I am not arguing that at all, but he had the right to do so. Imus had the right to say what he did just as Larry Flynt had the right to publish an ad parody claiming that well-known minister Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse while they were both tanked.
I do not think there is any man in America who wants people to think his first sexual experience was tapping his drunken mother in an outside bathroom.
Regardless, the First Amendment protects all speech including the most vile, like that of Imus or Flynt.
As Americans, we should know this. Freedom of speech is the reason some citizens burn our flag despite the fact that numerous Americans have died to protect it.
The founding fathers gave us this right when they wrote our Constitution, and this most recent problem is one in a long line of First Amendment debates.
Despite this, we all must remember what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1919 of Schenck versus the United States, a case dealing with wartime propaganda: "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree. When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right."
As Holmes states, the only time speech can be controlled or stopped is when the words said, printed or broadcast present a "clear and present danger" to the nation during war.
Imus did not do that with his comments. He only spoke his opinion, which we have the right to believe or not to believe.
By implementing the seeds of censorship, the freedom of speech is now in a precarious position.
What will be the next thing someone says in accordance to their constitutional right of free speech that will cause them to lose their job?
I think what Imus said is wrong, but who can define what a country thinks is offensive?
This is why we have the First Amendment - so we can speak freely, even if what we say can be looked at as stupid, racist or wrong.
When we take this right away, we are one step closer to living in a world of Stalinism where we are censored if we say anything that may even hint at social or political dissent. So, while what Imus said is wrong, firing him for saying it is worse. Who knows what the implications of this will be.
I know that I hope I never see the day where someone can control what I say or write.