Either choose free speech or give up

Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe we should just repeal the First Amendment.
Other people have made the same suggestion, arguing that the media and other beneficiaries of the First Amendment are not responsible and do not deserve such generous protection.
My rationale is just the opposite. I am not concerned with the media. Their excesses should be anticipated. What concerns me is that we, as citizens, don’t seem to know how to react to those excesses. We just can’t seem to resist using the power of government to attack the people and ideas we oppose.
We are a society that loves talking about freedom, especially when ostracizing the misdeeds of Third World leaders, but we are often too afraid or too lazy to completely back it up. Which leads me to think that maybe we should just put an end to our self-delusion, repeal the First Amendment and confess to the world, at long last, that we are simply not mature enough to handle life in a truly free society.
One would think that two centuries after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the notion that the government may punish those who criticize it would seem as outmoded as wooden dentures. Yet Congress is still trying mightily — in the face of Supreme Court rulings — to criminalize the burning of flags. Are we so weak as a nation that the only response we can muster to these crude acts of protest is to ban them? Could there be a more glaring concession of our frailty?
One would also think that after all these years, and after dozens of Supreme Court decisions on the subject, people would recognize the folly of government serving as an arbiter of information and entertainment. Yet governments at all levels continue to seize increasing control over the Internet and other media. And they continue to impose flailing, knee-jerk laws aimed at media content.
Just last week an amendment to Congress’ juvenile justice bill was introduced that would have made it illegal for children to buy “shameful” or “morbid” material.
Where would Congress have begun in enforcing that law? Would Kiss records be OK, but not Marilyn Manson’s? Would Congress consider N’Sync to be as “shameful” as I do?
One would also expect that at this stage in our social evolution, we would have long since dispensed with the idea that annoying, offensive or disrespectful speech can be made illegal. Yet just two weeks ago, St. Paul Human Rights Director Tyrone Terrill filed a charge against the St. Paul Pioneer Press alleging that the paper “discriminated against African American student-athletes in the area of public accommodation on the basis of race” when it ran an editorial cartoon titled “the plantation,” which suggested that the University’s basketball players were being used for their talents but denied a meaningful education.
Terrill plainly misunderstood the cartoon’s message. But his greater error was in filing this contrived and glaringly unconstitutional charge. Terrill’s reaction is just one of countless examples of our childish supersensitivity to offensive speech, and of our tendency to use the law as a substitute for intelligent rebuttal. Unfortunately, Terrill is just one of a long line of government officials who has used his power to compel others to accept his ideas.
For all of our bombast about freedom, liberty and tolerance, we have never fully given life to those ideas. We have come a long way in many respects, but we have not rid ourselves of our old Puritan impulses.
So, how do we change this? One thing we can do, in addition to trying to individually broaden our own minds, is to make some changes in the way we educate the next generation of speakers and regulators. For all of our obsession with standardized tests and basic skills, we never really teach kids how to live peacefully and intelligently in a free country.
Kids need to be taught what it means to live in a society that ostensibly has free speech. They need to know that they are free to criticize others and they are obligated to criticize the government when so moved. They must also know that the government is the greatest threat to free expression and that attempts by government to interfere with the autonomy of the media or with the ideas of individuals should be presumptively unconstitutional.
Kids also need to know that living in a free society is not easy, that it requires tolerance and restraint, and that the rejection of ideas one opposes has to be achieved through “more speech, not enforced silence,” to quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
The other skill kids and adults need to develop is a basic understanding of the way the media work and of the commercial and ideological forces that drive them. Armed with this information, they will be less vulnerable to the media’s inevitable pandering to their “shameful” and “morbid” interests. And the less vulnerable they are, the less prone adults will be to protect them through excessive regulation.
Of course, doing these things is a social responsibility; it is not merely the task of the public schools. And it is something that adults need to develop as much as kids.
But we have to start somewhere. We have to do something to rejuvenate American’s respect for free expression. If not, Congress will continue to usurp the media’s independence and public officials will continue to find new and inventive ways to punish dissent.
In which case, we might as well rescind the First Amendment and stop pretending that we live in a truly free society.
Erik Ugland’s column appears on alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments on his column or the Daily to [email protected].