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  • Reverend James Squire

Free Speech Isn’t Free

Photo by Vasillos Musselimis

The home of free speech in recent American history is based in protests at the University of California at Berkeley in the 60(s). I begin with a humorous story at my expense. When I arrived at Berkeley years after the 60(s) protest, I landed late at night. My dorm was at the top of the Holy Hill where several different seminaries and institutions for graduate study were found. I was there for graduate study beyond the programs that I took at Berkeley at Yale and Duke.

Since it was late and I was hungry, I walked down the hill on Euclid Avenue that is lined with restaurants. I stood in line outside of one. I was still dressed in my khaki pants, blue blazer, and buttoned- down collared shirt. All the patrons in line ahead of me and behind me were scantily glad, had many piercings and tattoos, sandals, long hair and were chatting away. The person in front of me, turned, and asked in a loud voice, “Hey dude! What planet are you from?” I responded, “Philadelphia!” He replied, “That explains it!" Everyone laughed. I had to chuckle myself. I stood out!

Various Republican politicians are now crying foul that Trump and their social media platforms have silenced him and them. I want to offer the same proclamation to them, that the person in line in front of me raised. Hey dude, what planet are you guys from? We teach in ethics that your right to free speech stops when it infringes on someone else’s rights or could put them in danger. The classic guiding principle is that you can’t cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater. But it is also part of our basic human rights granted by the First Amendment.

The tricky thing is to define moments of free speech being suppressed. It is like the oft mentioned definition of pornography. It is hard to define it, but you know it when you see it. Free speech is not free because it could produce a cost for a certain person or group of people. This is why we have hate speech laws to handle these exceptions.

Some of the things that you cannot say under the guiding principles of free speech are the following: libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, fighting words, incitement, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, and food labeling. All these examples have been tested in the courts. But notice three on this list. They are sedition, fighting words, and incitement. In the words of my Aunt Nellie, “Bingo!” Our Republican colleagues and Trump enablers need to check out these guiding principles. Trump’s enablers say that his voice has been cut off. Really? What about the White House Briefing Room? Who has one of those in his house? He can speak from there. Oh! I forgot. That would take courage, something which he has in small supply. Keep in mind that this applies to Democrats and Independents as well. The strongest argument on the Republican side of the ball is that you are slandering our group. The insurrection, the sedition, fighting words, and incitement would probably carry the day in the free speech court against the accusation of slander.

One day I took a walk around the Berkeley campus. There is an entrance that is directly across from the street where one of the beginning camps of “hippies” stood their ground. It was common for me to see men, women, and children who were locked in a time warp of the 60(s). I could smell the pot haze coming from various stores and encampments. As I made my way back to the entrance that I just mentioned, there was a metal circle in the pavement that was the size of a manhole cover. The Free Speech Movement began at Berkeley. The metal circle states this fact. It also indicates that anyone can step into that circle and say anything they want at the top of their lungs. The caveat is that it is located in such a way that people don’t have to hear it or be hurt from it. You can always walk away. I wish we had such a circle in Washington, D. C.

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