Friday, February 16, 2007

A Primer on Free Speech

With all the bust up in the blogosphere over the last few weeks about Shakespeare's Sister and Amanda at Pandagon, I thought it was time to remind a few people what it is that free speech means.

Free speech means that as long as I am not saying something slanderous or threatening, I have the right to say what I want. I can be idiotic, I can be a bigot, I can be a complete and total asshole. But with that I also have to expect that someone else has the right to use their free speech to call me on my assholery.

Unless what I am saying is threatening, I cannot be jailed for what I say.

That said, nothing that Amanda or Shakes wrote was bigoted towards Catholics, but even if they had written something bigoted, the death threats and rape threats that they both received are not free speech.

When this country was still just an idea in a bunch of revolutionaries' heads, Benjamin Franklin printed an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette for an ocean trip. The ad stated "No black gowns" were allowed. This did not mean that the ladies had to leave their little black dresses at home. It meant no clergy allowed. In the brouhaha that followed the printing, Franklin wrote:

If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.

A few years later, in 1735, John Peter Zenger was prosecuted for seditious libel, or for having printed derogatory comments about the government. This is where the basis for our idea of free speech and freedom of the press comes from, so pay attention. Under this law, it was even more illegal to print derogatory truths about the government than to print derogatory lies. The point was, lies could be disproved but printing the horrible truth could not.

Zenger's lawyer argued that printing the truth was more important than protecting the government from public scrutiny. The jury agreed and went against the law and the judge to acquit Zenger.

For us in the here and now, this means criticising the government for it's actions in Iraq is not, in fact, treasonous or traitorous. It means that Joe Wilson's actions in the Yellow Cake debacle were not something that the government could take punitive actions for (like endangering his wife by exposing her CIA status).

Now in the case of the above mentioned bloggers, the screaming meemies on the right were calling for blood because they had been offended by the bloggers' opinions.

Let's make a big distinction here folks- opinions, whether you agree with them or not, are not facts. They are hopefully based on facts (not always- see Bill O'Reilly). Opinions can be agreed with or disagreed with, but having a different opinion from someone else does not give you the right to threaten them with harm.

Some examples:

Fact (or truth): Numerous Catholic Priests in the United States were child molesters and there is evidence that the Catholic Church hierarchy used measures to hide this from their parishioners.

This is a fact because it has been proven, repeatedly, in a court of law. There is evidence to back it up and court decisions to support it.

Opinion: I think the Catholic Church hierarchy is a slimy piece of work for having risked the children in their parishes rather than deal with pedophile priests.

This is opinion because it is what I think. If you disagree you are free to state an opinion to the contrary- maybe you want to say that "Those children were blessed by the priests' hot sticky love fluid and should shut their pieholes".

Threats (actual threats taken from Pandagon)

It's just too bad your mother didn't abort you. You are nothing more than a filthy mouth slut. I bet a couple of years in Iraq being raped and beaten daily would help you appreciate America a little. Need a plane ticket ?
This is a threat because this person has stated that Amanda should be raped and beaten (both things are illegal- for those too ignorant to know)and the oh so literate author wants to helpcommit those illegal acts by sending her to a place where she will be raped and beaten.

Nowhere in our constitution does it say that if you have offended me with words that I have the right to escalate the fight into physical violence.

Nowhere in the constitution does it say that you can counter someones opinion by threatening to commit illegal acts.

Nowhere in the constitution does it say that there is a right to not be offended.

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