Freedom of Speech: My Version and Theirs


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Freedom of Speech: My Version and Theirs


The First Amendment has led Americans to believe in a hallowed sense of freedom that does not exist; freedom of speech. Freedom of speech in this country has never been absolute. You can't yell fire in a crowded theater, solicit bribes, make terrorist threats, slander another, intentionally inflict emotional distress or be obscene in public (Dickerson).

What Americans do have a right to is their opinion and the means by which to express it, no matter if the opinion is favorable or not. There are some advocates who champion for restrictions on unfavorable speech, like violent or racist remarks. And though the intentions behind such beliefs are made in good faith, it is unrealistic to believe the mission of filtering out racist speech could be completed without catching in the same net all kinds of other speech that is considered "OK" (Lawrence III 514). I firmly believe that a government that tells its citizens what is appropriate to say will soon be dictating what they may think also, and by that, it is unlawful for the government to regulate racist or violent speech. By doing so the government would intrude on students' creativity and learning process, would set illusive restraints on racist behavior, and undermine the Constitution at whole.

To begin, government censorship and the student learning process are an incompatible combination. In any efforts the government might make to protect students from bad ideas, the students are deprived of the right to make up their own minds and form opinions. They are also deprived of creative freedom if their work is reflected by the fear of being censored or punished for their writing. How will students learn to identify and cope with bad ideas or negative arguments if they are not exposed to them or allowed to expose their opinion on them? (Hentoff 517).

A case in Blaine, Wash., validates such a point. 16-year-old James Lavine was expelled because he wrote a poem. Though Lavine was never involved in much trouble in school, never showed a short-fused temper, never showed desire to inflict harm on animals or start fires, and never showed interest in weapons or bombs, Lavine was expelled because his poem described a murder (Tisdale).

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Unlike Kip Kinkel, (who opened fire on his classmates in Springfield, Ore., in May 1998) who had a clear pattern of violence over several years and was actually suspended for bringing a gun to school, James Lavine was guilty of nothing more than expressing a frightening thought. Why would the government be surprised that an American high school boy thinks about murder? It's a subject worth many millions of dollars to novelists and screenwriters, and not exactly a new idea for artists (Tisdale). If the government went forth with laws filtering bad ideas and thoughts on violence, students would not have to commit violence to get kicked out of school, they'd just have to write about it (Tisdale).

Secondly, the government's specific censorship of a racist's remarks will not always solve the problem at hand. For example, in 1995 the California Supreme Court forbade John Lawrence from using racial slurs ever again after being found guilty of workplace harassment (Dickerson). Eight of Lawrence's Latino co-workers at Avis Car Rental were awarded a total of $150,000 in damages after they were exposed to verbal harassment from Lawrence. They were routinely battered with names like "wetback," "crook" and "spic," along with being demeaned for their poor English skills. Yes, racial epithets and harassment often cause deep emotional scarring for victims (Lawrence III 515), but the court's actions after the fact leaves many

loopholes that do not solve the problem at hand.

Judge Bea, who oversaw the Lawrence case, created a list of proscribed words that John Lawrence was forbidden to utter -- (Lawrence is still employed by Avis) (Dickerson). This is absurd! What if Bea forgot a word? "Lawrence could easily coin nonsense words to convey his contempt for Hispanics, speak with a Speedy Gonzalez accent, or get a buddy to say the dirty words for him" (Dickerson). Yes, while the order to restrict Lawrence's vocabulary simply repressed the defendant from continuing unlawful activity (I am referring to harassment), can we allow the courts to penalize speech before we know what was said to whom? I don't believe so and in isolating specific racist thoughts and words, we only give the haters the opportunity to seek other routes in expressing their anger. We will never be in the clear of this one.

Lastly, by censoring any type of speech, other than unlawful speech (slander and libel, for example), the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are undermined. The First Amendment is written on a principle based on free thought. "Not free only for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate" (Hentoff 519). If the Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights are to mean anything, then sometimes we just have to suppress the urge to implement solutions that may be even worse than the problems they were meant to address. Words like "Die, Die, Die Pig" are strong but the Constitution protects strong speech (Ehrenreich 522). It would be impossible to stop the haters from hating, but even if there was a way to stop the racists of the world, undermining the Constitution shouldn't be one of them.

In conclusion, "freedom of speech is the lifeblood of our democratic system" (Lawrence III 514). No matter how hard we struggle, it is still so difficult to solve the racial puzzles in this country. Beyond our attempts to enforce affirmative action, bussing and minority scholarships, the honor of free speech is still in conflict with the elimination of racism (Lawrence III 513). Until Judge Bea, from the John Lawrence/Avis harassment case, incited the ruling banning Lawrence from using racial slurs again, a racist's worst nightmare was being penalized for his past behaviors, but now he can be legally muzzled from spewing his invective again. (Dickerson). I feel this decision is in violation with the First Amendment, and we should not be proud of ourselves. Sometimes there isn't a litigated, legislated, law-based answer to our problems (Dickerson). I do believe in a persons right to express his or her opinions. Although, this is not the norm to allow anyone to voice their opinions whenever and on whatever topic they want. Opinions that differ from the norm are sometimes subjected to constitutionality and scorn or are squelched all together. I stand by the military saying, I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for you to have the right to say it.

Works Cited

Ehrenreich, Barbara. "Ice-T: The Issue is Creative Freedom." Elements of Argument. Ed.

Hentoff, Nat. "Free Speech on the Campus." Elements of Argument. Ed.

"How Not to Stifle a Racist." Ed. Debra Dickerson. Salon.com.

16 Aug. 1999

Lawrence III, Charles R. "On Racist Speech." Elements of Argument. Ed.

"Second Thoughts." Ed. Sallie Tisdale. Salon.com. 5 Nov. 1998




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