Freedom of Speech

The First Amendment to the United State’s Constitution states: “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.” Although, it starts with the world Congress the First Amendment also applies to the states as a result of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.

The right to free speech of one of the fundamental rights that all authors should embrace especially in light of the recent situation in the middle-east. Apparently someone made a silly movie disrespecting Islam that may have resulted in some very real deaths. This is tragic. At the same time making a stupid or even offensive movie concerning a religion is clearly protected by the constitution. 

Most countries do not have the same rights of freedom of speech we have in America. This includes other Western and European nations. In Germany it is illegal to make hateful comments about religious groups. In various other European countries speech that could cause religous riots can be barred.

Not all speech is protected in America. The most often used example is shouting fire in a crowded building. This type of speech is clearly not protected. Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919). Certainly the dissemination of obscene materials is not protected. There are also limitations related to times and places. These might limit speech at school events or in quite neighborhoods at two in the morning. Although there are “hate crime” laws they usually involve some other crime and the hate crime aspect of it is used to enhance the penalties of the existing crime. As an example if you hit a person based on the color of their skin that crime could result in a higher potential sentence.

I don’t believe as Americans we have the right to avoid being offended. Many of the books that have taken me out of my comfort zone were trans-formative in my life. I am saddened each year when they put out a list of banned books for schools that include many classic works of literature.

There is an old saying among lawyers that, “Hard cases make bad law”. We must not limit our free speech because people in the middle-east use it as an excuse to riot. We should certainly tell anyone who will listen that making derogatory statements or movies about a person’s religion is rude, crass and unacceptable. Yet, at the same time our government needn’t do so.

As an author it is a slippery slope to limit speech that is offensive. Many books I have enjoyed my grandmother would find rude. I find many of the books children are reading to be disturbing. Hunger Games a must read for the elementary and middle school set involves having children fight to the death for entertainment. Yet, any down side to free speech is vastly outweighed by the alternative.

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