“I may not agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
This used to be the belief of most Americans. Maybe we didn’t all pledge to literally die to protect the First Amendment, but it is a cornerstone of America, simultaneously protecting our right to speak, to gather with others, and to tell our elected officials what we believe. It is, in fact, the first amendment to our Constitution. It doesn’t merely limit what the government can do, it prohibits the government from limiting our speech.
We used to tout the benefits and importance of being able to speak our minds, especially about what the government was doing or not doing. This was as American as anything about us as a people or a nation.
It’s been troubling over the last few years as more and more people talk about “opponents” promoting “hate” and “disinformation,” as if there is always a clearly correct and a clearly wrong idea — as if that actually matters. We have a right to be wrong. To think out loud. To challenge.
Over the last few years, public officials began using “hate” and “disinformation” to refer to speech about elections, candidates, Covid, the climate, and more. Much worse, there is mounting evidence that government officials pressured, urged, or colluded with members of corporate and digital media to limit, ban, or “hide” certain comments, stories or postings — an alarming violation of the Constitution. (Some might call it fascist behavior.)
Two recent news items brought it home. First, a Pew research poll’s results: 62 percent of teenagers think it’s more important that online comments “make people feel welcome and safe” than allowing people “to speak their minds freely.” This is a troubling trend. But they’re teenagers. They don’t hold government power.
However, the second story crystallizes the problem and the very dangerous divide in America. The U.S. House Judiciary Committee held a hearing to investigate government censorship and government “working with” media of all types. During the testimony, both Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and the First Amendment suffered a black eye.
Some Democratic House members tried to prohibit Mr. Kennedy from speaking, literally offering a motion to prohibit him from being heard. Then, during their personal remarks, several members promoted limits on free speech. There was a public discussion led by members of Congress on the idea that if the government deems something “hateful” or decides it’s “disinformation,” it shouldn’t be heard.
So, it’s time for a refresher course. Here’s the First Amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Rather than trying to ban or silence witnesses, if a member adamantly opposes the message or the messenger, the member could choose not to attend the hearing, or walk out of the hearing. He or she could ask tough questions, offer remarks at the hearing, or on the house floor, on any street corner, or over whatever social media platform the member chooses.
What is not acceptable is offering a motion to prohibit a witness from speaking. This is, after all, the United States and not a dictatorship.
Why don’t our leaders understand civics, or know our history, or uphold the First Amendment? Don’t they know we’ve been divided before — that many Americans have thought what their opponents were saying was factually wrong; horrible policy; or even hateful — but everyone was allowed to voice their opinion because we have … the First Amendment?
Much of America’s success rests on the First Amendment. And, yes, one could disagree. But let’s have that argument.
Why don’t high school and college teachers teach about the First Amendment? Why don’t they explain its virtue and how it has helped America and made us unique on earth? Maybe it’s because today’s opposing voices are disinvited, shouted-down, and rarely heard. Or, because we offer safe spaces to “protect” students from “hurtful” ideas.
Americans have often held diametrically opposed views. Read any account of the discussion over the Constitution. Read the debates over slavery, Vietnam, or Watergate. Consider the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of then-U.S. Circuit Court Judge Robert Bork in 1987. Listen to what then-Senators Biden and Kennedy (RFK Jr.’s uncle) said about Judge Bork. What they said about that brilliant, decent man was inexcusable hate speech. But it was their right to say it.
Read the stories about the ACLU going to court to defend the KKK’s right to hold a public march — in a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois in 1978. The KKK’s petition to march is one of the most hateful uses of the First Amendment, ever. The ACLU, embracing the Constitution and the First Amendment, went to court to argue that those real “hate-mongers” had a right to get a permit to march. That is one of the finest moments in the defense of the First Amendment.
In 1989, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that burning the American flag was free speech protected by the First Amendment. You want to talk about hate speech? Here was an act whose sole purpose was to provoke anger and hurt.
The late, great conservative Justice Antonin Scalia stunned many by voting to uphold this hateful anti-American speech. Why? As he said years later, “If it were up to me, I would put in jail every sandal-wearing, scruffy-bearded weirdo who burns the American flag. But I am not king.”
We need more Scalias. We need the ACLU to return to its roots. We need teachers to teach and celebrate the First Amendment. The Founding Fathers were not perfect people, but they gave us a vision and guiderails that have largely worked for almost 250 years.
I would argue that much of America’s success rests on the First Amendment. And, yes, one could adamantly disagree. But let’s have that argument.
Guy Ciarrocchi is a Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation, and a writer and strategist. Guy is the former CEO of the Chester County Chamber and Republican nominee for Congress. [email protected] @PaSuburbsGuy