Speech is Free; Talk is Cheap

1 07 2015

Nothing like a little constitutional quotation to excite you, right? Well, I am going to risk it and cite the First Amendment, my emphasis added:

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.

We’re so accustomed to hearing “Freedom of Speech” – it has become such a familiar defense for all manner of words – that it seems we’ve inappropriately expanded our concept of what it is that the First Amendment guarantees.

Now, I am not a constitutional lawyer, but I can read and this seems pretty obvious. We are free from governmental interference or punishment* to speak our minds . . . even those of us who possess the smallest ones. The First Amendment does not, however, bestow the freedom from any consequences of our speech.

I am free to say that I think left-handed people are stupid. (Note: this is just an absurd example. I know many brilliant left-handed people and plenty of right-handed idiots.) I am free to say it, but I am not free from the backlash that such a ridiculous, but legal-to-say, statement would create for me.

I am constitutionally permitted to be an asshole. That doesn’t mean I should make being an asshole my life’s work. (This might be a good time for me to admit that I believe “It’s legal,” is the absolute lowest possible bar for civilized behavior. Maintaining that as a personal standard is, as far as I’m concerned, equal to graduating from school with a “D” average.)

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences of our speech.

We are free to voice our hopes, beliefs, opinions, frustrations, and desires. We are free to choose the words we use to exercise our First Amendment right: words that acknowledge and respect others whose hopes, beliefs, opinions, frustrations, and desires are very different than ours; or words that belittle, diminish, and disrespect others with whom we disagree.

I am lucky to have smart family members who hold some seriously opposing political beliefs. They speak freely and fiercely, but without rudeness. We learn from these spirited, sometimes heated, civilized conversations. If they chose, instead, to shout in sound-bites and memes, there would be no learning – and no more Thanksgiving dinners.

What good is Freedom of Speech if our words fall on deaf ears?

The English language is powerful and rich and words do matter. Let’s start with the kindest ones. If we need them, as a last resort, the ugly ones will always be waiting for us.

*  Yes, of course, slander and libel, hollering “jiggery pokery” in a crowded theater, and a very few other limits apply.

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