Freedom of Speech


I’m a TV series addict.  Will & Grace (which will forever remain my number one), Law and Order, Leverage, Numb3rs, Medium, The Good Wife, The Mentalist, even Men In Trees – although that last isn’t grabbing me as much any more, it’s getting a bit cheesy.  The rest, though, have great scripts, characters with real depth, good cinematography.  They tell believable stories, and all of them carry some sort of philosophical weight.

The other day a Law and Order episode dealt with freedom of speech.  The issue was that an   impressionable, vulnerable, messed-up young man had killed a couple of African Americans.  He had belonged to a militant KKK-type pro-white-dominance group who actively sought out troubled and vulnerable young men for its membership.  The leader of this group preached eloquently and charismatically and had a huge impact on his followers. DA Jack McCoy wanted that leader to be held equally responsible for the crime because he had obviously influenced the young man who’d pulled the trigger with his public speaking.

Of course everybody was opposed to McCoy for attacking freedom of speech.   McCoy argued that freedom of speech was intended to mean freedom to express one’s opinion persuasively in discussion.  He said a man preaching violence to a group of messed up, angry kids needing a father-figure and an outlet for their rage, was not in any way encouraging discussion and open-mindedness but was in fact manipulating their minds and inciting them to violence.  McCoy won that round.  It’s a fine line between being allowed to speak one’s twisted horrible mind and being allowed to use a person’s vulnerability to manipulate them to pull a trigger on the subject of one’s hate.  Glad I’m not a judge.

I always think of America as being the country that ferociously protects freedom of speech, and in principle I love the idea and subscribe to it wholeheartedly.  Recently, though, I’ve realized that it can be quite a scary thing.  Everybody in the US has a voice, and something to say.  At the moment it seems like all the ultra conservative fringe elements of society are exceptionally articulate – or should I say vociferous?  Articulate implies some kind of intelligent thought process behind the words.

I have found myself being scared by it.  Scared at the racists, the anti-Obama-ites, the anti-Mexicans, the pro Bush voices, pro Sarah Palin.   It’s much easier for me if they’re not allowed to voice their opinions.  Do I want them not to speak out?   If I do, it means nothing less than that I want freedom of speech for people who say things that I think make sense!  Good thing I’m not a founding father of any society, not likely to make president of any country any time soon.

Having thought it through, however, I’m relieved to say that I can stand by my original idea that freedom of speech is a good thing for everyone.  Because it lays the responsibility on the shoulders of people who make up any society to play an active role in maintaining the health of that society.   When the law prohibits the lunatic fringe from articulating in public, they go underground, and the rest of us get lazy.

Probably the whole world knows this.  I just figured it out.

Better late than never.

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