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Always side with free speech

November 24, 2017 - 9:53pm

Freedom of expression is so important to democracy that it is the First Amendment to the Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

You may ask, “If it is so important why was it not included in the original Constitution?”

The answer I have been told was that it was so obvious that it did not seem necessary. As I understand it, James Madison, affectionately known among his colleagues as “Little Jemmie Madison” (he was 5-foot 4-inches tall); was not satisfied that the implicit protections were adequate and campaigned for the Bill of Rights. If you look at Supreme Court decisions, there are many to disagree with, but the First Amendment has stood the test many times. Today we include all news media in the press.

Freedom of expression or simply free speech is the conscience of a free society. An intrusion against free speech is the first step toward a dictatorship. The first thing on a dictator’s agenda is to take over the media, in all its forms, radio, TV, internet, printing presses and bulletin boards. I think the ubiquitous mimeograph machine in the basement of Catholic Churches helped overthrow communism in Poland. What they cannot control they destroy. Dictatorial regimes have state owned, controlled or censored media.

Granted, free speech can be abused. A hate group or presidential candidate can encourage violence. ISIS could publish instructions on how to kill people, but so does Hollywood. The courts have to walk a fine line. There is a distinct difference between telling people how something can be done and urging them to do it. With enough research, online or at the library, one can learn how to do all sorts of nasty things from kinky sex to genocide. The internet just makes it easier.

No mainstream source is likely to encourage you to commit a specific crime against a specific party. I think that is where the court draws the line. When the American Nazis wanted to march in Skokie, Illinois (a Jewish enclave), many people were concerned and wanted to stop them. The ACLU, however, defended the Nazis’ parade permit and they got to march. They got to spill their hate, and convinced nobody. When extremists spout their nonsense most people recognize it as such, boo and walk away.

Even if extremists get elected, they are not likely to implement their most despicable plans as long as – and this is the important part—the opposition is also free to speak. Slander and libel are civil issues.

There is a dangerous trend in America. Colleges, traditionally the liberal safe place to discuss all new ideas in every branch of human endeavor, are yielding to pressure to limit the speech of individuals whose point of view might cause conflict. Some students are complaining that college should be a safe environment that protects them from uncomfortable thought. No, that is called a monastery.

Another dangerous thought is that these rights guaranteed in the Constitution only apply to citizens. This is particularly absurd in a moral and practical sense. The word citizen does not appear in the Bill of Rights, only “right of the people.” Rights other than voting or serving in elected office are presumed to be natural, or if you will, God-given. As a matter of practicality, imagine if police or rescue action had to be put on hold until the subject party’s citizenship could be determined. We would all have to carry internal passports, or wear identifying armbands.

Censorship is the classic slippery slope. Allow one restriction of rights and soon there is another. If you disagree, you should be able to speak up. Healthy civil debate leads to reasonable decisions.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Email

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