I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom of speech lately. It seems to be on everybody’s tongues in America, and is definitely something Americans hold dear to their hearts. It seems a good thing. Anybody can say what they want, and everybody’s free to react. That means individuals have to take responsibility for their own feelings and reactions. They can’t stop somebody from speaking even the most foul things. Because everybody has the right to their own thoughts and beliefs.
That’s all very well when you’ve got honest people who do take responsibility for themselves, and who aren’t prejudiced, and who are tolerant. But what about people who are highly prejudiced, educated, very articulate, charismatic? Who are massively prejudiced and whose speech fosters intolerance and even violence? People whose speeches influence thousands if not hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions? If the point of freedom of speech is to protect society, how does it do that in this instance?
I’ve been wondering what was originally meant by the founding fathers of America, who insisted on making it one of America’s most primary rights. What context were they meaning it in? Was their intention to promote debate and discussion? I suspect it was. So in that context, I’m all for it, who wouldn’t be?
But what about when you have a homophobe who believes that homosexuals have given themselves to Satan, and quotes large tracts of the Bible to support his arguments? Who’s very articulate, empathetic and charming and who moves into a community and knows how to work his way into people’s hearts so that they don’t question him. Then unleashes his prejudice. His free speech isn’t about promoting discussion, he’s not inviting people to proffer their viewpoint so we can all benefit. He’s out to influence people so that they’ll join his “homosexuals are evil” movement.
Well, there are plenty of people who can see the truth. They’re okay, they’re safe. But what about the really vulnerable ones, who are not sure, not secure in life, who desperately need somebody to guide them? Because a person like this gets to them. He meets their needs in ways nobody else ever has before, and pretty soon his followers aren’t questioning anything he says. They’ve found a home.
Take Hitler for example, or any fundamentalist group. That’s how they get their following. And once they do, then they start acting, and by then their power is so great that they can commit mass murder and their followers won’t question them. Now who’s the evil one?
And what about the homosexuals? Are they protected when people like this want to garner support for rewriting laws, protecting gay rights, that have been so dearly fought for? Freedom of speech has been great for the homophobe, but it’s not protecting human rights, it’s being used to trash them.
And I guess that’s where a person crosses the line. Much as I hate it when free speech is manipulated to promote prejudice, I have to agree that the American founding fathers had the right idea. Freedom of speech can’t be legislated against. But when the principle of the law gets abused, when people step way over the boundary of what’s okay and what isn’t, the courts can step in and decide whether the speech was in the interests of free and fair debate or whether it was intentionally fostering violence and intolerance in society or even just amongst a group.
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