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January 31, 2022

Freedom of Speech: A Slippery Slope or First Amendment Right?

 

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As a child of the 60s and 70s, I have always thought that freedom of speech was a cool thing.

Protesting the Vietnam War, police brutality, the massacre at Kent State, and Civil Rights violations were part of the news scape as I was growing up.

The raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics to support the Black Power movement created a maelstrom of backlash by the forces who found it to be disrespectful and, dare I say, on the side of those who look with critical eyes as those who cast aspersions on the Black Lives Matter movement today.

The modern day equivalent was brought into the spotlight when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. Others followed suit, not as a protest against the United States, not in disrespect for the flag and those who were heralded as heroes who fought for our freedom, but in the face of injustice and oppression. Military vets joined the growing number of people who were exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. They were doing it silently and peacefully. No weapons, no threats to life and limb.

One of my all time favorite movies is the Amazing Grace and Chuck , which tells the tale of a Little League baseball star named Chuck (Joshua Zuelke), whose father’s (William Peterson) congressman friend takes Chuck’s class to see a nuclear missile silo. He is understandably alarmed about the implications and decides to “give up my best thing,” until there are no more nuclear weapons.

On game day, he steps off the mound and goes on strike. A local news story ends up on the wire service and a fictional Boston Celtics player named Amazing Grace Smith (Alex English) reads it and decides to join Chuck in his quest. Jamie Lee Curtis plays his skeptical agent who eventually comes around to support the cause as do numerous other professional and Olympic athletes. There are dark forces who don’t like what is going on and a tragic event occurs that only serves to strengthen the movement. Gregory Peck gives voice to the character of the president of the United States who sees the situation through Chuck’s eyes, and because he wants a future for the next generations, he negotiates with the Russian premier.

Initially, he says to the boy, “Now Chuck, I can’t deny you the right to protest, that’s in the First Amendment and God forbid that should change. But there’s an old saying: ‘You can’t run into a crowded theater and yell fire!’ to which Chuck astutely asks, “But, sir, what if there is a fire?”

There are a number of fires blazing since the film came out in 1987. The pandemic, the insurrection, threats to voting rights and reproductive rights, gun violence, perpetuation of The Big Lie, human rights violations, anti-Semitism, climate crisis, anti-immigration actions; it seems like they are burning out of control.

There are as many opinions about their existence and what to do about them as there are people holding those perspectives. And then, there’s Joe Rogan, the reality show host turned podcaster on the Spotify platform. He is making a seismic impact with his First Amendment right to express his views and bring guests on to his show who share theirs. Some are counter to the scientific and medical recommendations of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) as he has invited guests on his show who are outspokenly anti-vax and anti-mask, including Marjorie Taylor Green and Dr. Robert Malone. He supported the anti-vaccine mandate rally in DC.

Brené Brown has joined Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and a growing number of others in leaving the platform which had been broadcasting their voices raised in song or inspiration. Facebook has been a hotbed of opinion sharing as well. Some are in agreement with the exodus and others see it as hypocritical of artists who espouse free speech. Nearly 300 medical professionals and scientists signed a letter to Spotify to express their alarm about what is being shared by Rogan on their airwaves.

It isn’t just about free speech, it is about being true to what you believe in. If someone is sharing and promoting misinformation that is harmful, is it acceptable to support it? Does Joe Rogan have the right to say what he does? Apparently so.

I put my time and money to what I believe in. There is a local business where I used to shop often, and during the 2020 election, they hosted the daughter of the candidate who blessedly lost. Did they have the right to invite her? Of course, but I no longer give them my business.

How do we traverse the erstwhile treacherous landscape without tumbling down that slippery slope? Book banning falls into that category. In my state, a school district banned books that were written by BIPOC and in another, the book Heather Has Two Mommies was removed from the school library.

In both cases, students and parents spoke up in protest. Those who made the decisions would say that they were protecting the best interest of the children so as not to risk causing them discomfort if they were to learn about systemic racism and sexism. Historically, books such as The Wizard of Oz, James and the Giant Peach, and A Wrinkle in Time (one of my longtime favorites) were on the naughty list. I agree that when children read age-appropriate books, they learn about how other people live and they develop empathy.

Representation matters. When children see themselves and their families in their reading material, they feel seen and validated. Books are meant to stir up questions and to make children curious about life. They are also a good conversation starter in families. When adults take the time to discuss the books that their children are reading, they can understand how their minds work and encourage pro-social values.

Sadly, that statement alone might be labeled “woke.”

What’s so funny (and political) about peace, love, and understanding? Most recently the Holocaust era graphic novel, Maus, was banned in Tennessee schools because it showed nudity and had expletives in it. The school boards deemed it improper for 8th graders. Gimme a break. Most 8th graders have likely heard cursing in their own homes and have seen gratuitous nudity on TV or perhaps video games. Just as it is with depictions of slavery, people with something to hide (like their own discomfort thinking about such topics) don’t want children to learn about the Holocaust either.

Children the age of 8th graders lived and died in concentration camps. If we want that never to happen again, the next generations need to know that it was horrific. Education is there to make us shift in our seats. If people can use their freedom of speech muscles to ban books, then, as a society, we obliterate the opportunity to make it just and fair for all of us. It’s not like a pie, with more for you means less for me. The difference, and this is the hard part, is discernment.

How can we tell what is fact/truth and what is opinion? Does Joe Rogan and his guests disseminate fact or opinion to feed a certain narrative?

The people who disagree may not have the ability to prevent him from offering airtime to those whose narrative endangers lives. But they do have the right to tune out and jump ship.

 

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