Exercising First Amendment rights not un-American

Freedom of speech.

Without those three words, this marvel of human ingenuity and sacrifice called the United States of America vanishes. Without that clause in the First Amendment, we lose this war and, retroactively, every war Americans ever fought. Without the freedom of speech, we lose all these things and more because that freedom is intrinsically tied to so many others – freedom of thought, expression and belief, to name a few.

Yet lately, many have paradoxically attacked this right in the name of patriotism. From both sides of the political spectrum, citizens have exercised their right to speak in an attempt to take that same right from others.

On one hand, some supporters of recent U.S. actions have berated anti-war protesters and critics of American foreign policy.

Last month, City University of New York professors held a forum during which they tried to look into the reasons behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Immediately, university administrators, students and community members denounced their tactics. New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser called it a “two-hour, hard-core America-bashing festival.” She quoted CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who called their actions “seditious.” Whether the professors’ intent was to “bash” the United States is debatable, but Peyser’s comment illustrates a disturbing trend toward equating any thoughtful investigation into the attacks as justification of the hijackers’ actions.

But professors speaking their minds is not sedition. There was no rebellion, no call to arms. They didn’t try to incite an uprising to overthrow the government. They spoke. That they spoke against U.S. policy is beside the point. The First Amendment makes the United States unique in that it renders all speech – short of incitements to riot or overthrow the government – a patriotic act, even if the idea being expressed contrasts the government’s actions. Calling peaceful speech “seditious” because it is disagreeable is like calling a vote against an incumbent politician “insurrection.”

Editorial decisions made by The Minnesota Daily drew similar criticism. Scott Laderman’s column “Make no mistake: America far from innocent” (Sept. 20) touched off a wave of letters to the editor, Laderman and others at the Daily. His column criticized U.S. foreign policy, prompting many to assume – falsely – that both he and the Daily condoned the Sept. 11 attacks. Several letters lambasted the Daily for being unpatriotic while at the same time urging Laderman be fired for exercising his First Amendment rights. Again, the arguments presented in the column were less important than the column itself. If the framers of the Constitution viewed anti-government sentiment as destructive or wrong, there would never have been a Revolutionary War.

Freedom of speech is also under attack from the left flank. Some who fear offending people or deviating from political correctness have stepped up their efforts to silence their opposition. And it isn’t only for war-related issues. St. Cloud State University administrators ordered the campus newspaper, the University Chronicle, not to refer to University of North Dakota sports teams by their nickname, the Fighting Sioux. UND’s nickname has come under fire because many people find it offensive and derogatory. Despite this, university administrators stepped out of line by trying to dictate a newspaper’s content based on the fear of offending people.

Last week, two editorial cartoons by The Minnesota Daily cartoonist Pete Wagner elicited a similar response. Some called on the Daily to fire Wagner because they said his Oct. 25 and Oct. 30 cartoons could be misconstrued as an indictment of all Arab-Americans. Several readers called Wagner and other Daily editors racists and bigots, accusing them of propagating anti-American principles. One letter stated the cartoons “are not conducive to creating diversity on our campus.”

But the University is not supposed to “create” diversity, nor is any institution that hopes to prosper. You can no more successfully create diversity than you can “create” an ecosystem. The guiding principle, then, should be allowing diversity. The cartoons were not racist. They did not stigmatize Arab-Americans or Arabs in general. They did, however, point out that U.S. media coverage of public reaction in the Arab world painted a picture of a region nearly devoid of outspoken opponents of Osama bin Laden. Had Wagner ignored this, the perception would still be there, right or wrong. Not drawing attention to a topic simply because doing so might offend someone does a disservice to the community as a whole. And that goes for individuals as well as media outlets.

Freedom, as has been stated numerous times, is not an easy burden to bear. And freedom of speech presents perhaps the greatest challenge because of its broad application. The right does not apply to one mindset, one side of an issue or one collection of ideals. It spans them all, no matter how intelligent or ignorant they might be. In the United States, the most offensive and most pacifying ideas are allowed to be expressed side by side. If you don’t like what you hear, don’t listen. Or better yet, disagree as vigorously as your beliefs warrant. But keep in mind and respect the principles that allow you to do so.

Silence, as Audre Lorde said, will not protect you.