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Authoritarianism vs. Democracy or Good vs. Evil?

Once again we are seeing debates in our country around the issue of free speech. President-elect Donald Trump just tweeted that flag burning should result in a person’s citizenship being revoked and/or spending a year in jail. In more than one instance, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that flag burning is protected as free speech. Trump’s favorite Supreme Court Justice, the late Antonin Scalia defended flag burning as a “form of expression” protected by the first amendment protection of free speech. In an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN, Scalia went on to say, “If I were king, I wouldn’t go about letting people burn the American flag. However, we have a First Amendment, which says that the right of free speech shall not be abridged, and it is addressed, in particular to speech critical of the government. I mean, that was the main kind of speech that tyrants would seek to suppress.” And curiously (at least to me), Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voted against a proposed bill to make flag burning illegal, while then Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton not only voted for it, but also was a co-sponsor of the bill.

On the Texas A&M Campus, an undisclosed someone has invited White Nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on campus. Students and faculty have petitioned the university administration to rescind the invitation and not allow Spencer to speak. Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think-tank, has recently received national exposure for headlining a meeting of White Nationalists in Washington DC and saluting Donald Trump with a “hail Trump” exclamation that was greeted by Nazi salutes by many in the audience. Texas A&M has so far not rescinded the invitation, claiming that, as a public institution, they must uphold the principle of free speech, which includes Spencer’s right to speak.

A lot of Americans don’t like flag burning. Some people, often veterans, say they are even “hurt” by it; many are angered. As Justice Scalia has pointed out, desecrating the flag is desecrating a symbol of the country. It is an expression of anger toward the country to desecrate the flag, and is an expression of free speech against the government. So the issue pits one person’s anger against another’s.

Hate speech is another thing. It directs anger and prejudice against groups. Usually these are minority groups, although sometimes the hate is directed at whole countries, such as Israel, or people, such as Pope Francis. Most universities, the main institutions that have banned hate speech, have defined it as directed toward minority races, ethnicities, sexual preference categories, gender identities or religions. While hate speech, by definition, involves anger, it engenders fear. When White Nationalists claim that America should be home only to the White race and Christians, they provoke fear in Blacks, Asians, Jews, and Muslims, among others. The danger with hate speech is that it can attract supporters. In fact, that is what it is designed to do. Virtually all minority groups in the U.S. have had experience being ostracized, discriminated against or attacked by those in the majority. Hate speech poses a danger to them.

A difference between an authoritarian regime and a democracy is that authoritarian regimes put in place laws that reflect the wishes of the authority that runs the country, while democracies have laws that protect the freedom of the citizens when the country’s leaders may want to take them away. In America, with our Bill of Rights, we even protect some basic rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press from assaults by the majority of the country’s citizens, should they want to remove such freedoms, particularly when those ideas, speech or religion are not popular with the majority. The constitution and the law based upon it protect even unpopular expressions of opinion from being restricted by the government, even in instances where the government is reflecting the national will. That is what is mean by the John Adams’ phrase that we are “a government of laws, not of men.”

But hate speech tests the limit of the concept of free speech. Hate speech is dangerous and hurtful. Is it better to allow dangerous, hurtful speech, particularly directed toward minorities who may easily become real victims, than to restrict it, thereby reducing the likelihood of harm to these minorities?

Muslims are a religious group that is feared by many Americans. Public figures as varied as liberal comedian Bill Maher and General Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor, have claimed that the message of Islam is inherently evil. Surveys have shown that a large portion of Americans believe that Muslims in America want to implement Sharia Law as the law of the land. Many Muslims feel that they are being targeted by the media, by film and television entertainment, by their neighbors and the government, and that Muslims in the Middle East are the victims of American military assaults. All of this may be true. The recent Somali knife attacker on the Ohio State University campus said as much in his Facebook posts. ISIS webpages and publications make the same claims and urge people to take up arms against America to defend their faith. Should Muslims who express this point of view, but fall short of urging their listeners to mount attacks, be barred from speaking? Does such speech amount to preaching evil? Is such speech as dangerous as that of White Nationalists who say that America is for White Christians and not Blacks or Jews? The U.S. Constitution says that both groups have the right to express their opinions.

Homosexual acts were illegal in all of the United States until 1962. When the Supreme Court invalidated Texas’ anti-sodomy law in 2003, fourteen states still had such laws on their books. Same-sex marriage is now legal throughout the U.S. but many Americans, including Vice President Elect Mike Pence want to overturn the Supreme Court decision that allows it. For many religious Americans, most notably evangelical Christians, Catholics and Muslims, homosexuality remains a “sin.”  We have a hard time these days imagining restricting someone from advocating the freedom to be homosexual, but in 1954, the Los Angeles Postmaster refused to allow the magazine One: The  Homosexual Magazine, to be mailed through the U.S. mail service, calling it "obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy." His decision was upheld by both the U.S. District Court and the Ninth Court of Appeals. It was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958. Would someone advocating homosexual behavior have been considered an advocate of “evil” in the 1950’s? A large portion of the American public would consider such advocacy evil even today.

Climate change is controversial, although those who are convinced by the scientific evidence, as well as many more who are convinced by media reports of scientific evidence but have never read it themselves, regard it as fact, not controversy. Feelings run so strongly about this topic that editorials have been written shaming people for calling those who question the evidence on man-made climate change, “climate change skeptics” or “climate change contrarians ” instead of “climate deniers.” A recently suggested  “code of conduct” for MIT professors began with the sentence, “The President-elect has appointed individuals to positions of power who have endorsed racism, misogyny and religious bigotry, and denied the widespread scientific consensus on climate change," appearing to lump climate change denial into the same category as “racism, misogyny and religious bigotry.”  In California, Senate Bill 1161, or the California Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act of 2016, which was never passed, would have made climate change denial by a business or corporation illegal.  Climate change denial has become a dirty word. Those who doubt the scientific evidence are now seen as not just naïve or uninformed, but evil. Should such a person be allowed to speak on a college campus? And what about a fossil fuel company that denies climate change?

In Europe during the Middle Ages, science was shaped by the Catholic Church and by Aristotle. It was not that one could not do science, it was that science had to agree with Church doctrine. This gerrymandered science became official doctrine and challenging it led to dismissal from university positions and often, trial for heresy. The evidence in favor of climate change is not gerrymandered science, but instead of allowing debate or questioning on the issue, objection to the accepted science is being treated as heresy. That is not how science is supposed to be discussed. In fact, discussion of the issue is thought of as almost criminal. The objection of course is to say that the issue is too important to allow voices of dissent a chance to affect public opinion. For how many scientific opinions that have proved to be false, has this argument been made in the past?

We have a constitution that protects free speech. It does so without regard to the content of the speech, except to prohibit slander (which must be proved to be untrue) or incitement to imminent violence. Without regard to the content of the speech means that it doesn’t matter whether it comes from liberal bias or conservative bias or reflects the opinion of the majority or just one individual. It doesn’t matter whether it spews hatred or love or whether the love is for all mankind, for the opposite sex or for one’s own sex. It allows flag burning and hate speech. It also allows flag reverence and rebuttals to hate speech. Our laws are designed to make everyone feel free to express whatever opinion he or she has, whether it is unpopular, hateful, harmful or wonderful.

To disallow “evil” speech, speech that expresses hate, particularly to those groups who are vulnerable, can make us feel safer if we are targets of such speech. We all know that Jews, Blacks, gays, Muslims and immigrants are currently targets of hate speech. But many religious Americans feel that they and their children, and especially their children’s values, are targets of expressions of the “normalcy” of homosexuality. Many fearful Americans feel that they are the targets of speech that claims that Muslims must do something to stop being victimized by Western countries or that civil laws should reflect laws of the Quran. Their feel that their lives are being put in danger by expression of such attitudes.  Whose evil words should we prohibit?

What we believe is good or evil is subjective and reflects society, culture and the current times. Different leaders of our government will feel that different things are evil or good. Right now half of the nation can’t believe that the other half has the values that it does. Should what we allow to be said in our country reflect what one half feels is good? Constitutional law, adjudicated by the Supreme Court, is not faultless, but at least it provides a standard that was determined by procedures that reflect careful legal reasoning. It is slow to change and subject to revision in the future. It provides rules that are visible to everyone and can be debated with regard to whether they do or do not conform to our Bill of Rights.  Deciding what can be said based on whether we think it is good or evil does not provide the assurance that adherence to our constitution does.

Reader Comments (1)

Liberal thinking meet kitchen sink! You managed to get all the liberal bias points in and still try to be balanced. I commend you on that.

December 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Torphy

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