Freedom of speech requires listening

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Midland Daily News February 21, 2006

 

            A couple comments made by prominent people in the last month captured my attention. They made me think about freedom of speech

.           From the beginning of our country, this freedom has been used to speak about slavery, prohibition, immigration, war, as well as many other issues..

            The limits of this freedom are especially troublesome during times of war. Those in favor of the war want to limit this freedom so as to present a united American voice in the war. President Bush has favored this approach. Here are a couple other voices:

            Harry Belafonte  made the news last month when he “compared the Homeland Security Department to the Nazi Gestapo” (USA Today) and called President George W. Bush a terrorist.

Cindy Sheehan is a war protestor who spent weeks at President Bush’s Texas home last summer waiting for a chance to talk to the President. She was a guest of a Representative to listen to the State of the Union address. She was whisked out of the Gallery and arrested for wearing a T-shirt that protested the war in Iraq.

This t-shirt incident adds another dimension to freedom of speech. She was clearly arrested for the message on the shirt, even though she spoke no words and was not disruptive. The police violated her freedom, even though they apologized.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press. In reference to Belafonte’s comment, "I never use Nazi analogies because I think that those were unique," But he added: "I think people are rightly concerned that we strike the right balance between our concerns for civil liberties and the uniform concern that all of us have about protecting ourselves from terrorism." (Chicago Tribune)

More than 200 years ago, Ben Franklin succinctly spoke to this same issue, , "Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one."

Other examples

            Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-NY) referred to the U.S. House of Representatives as the “plantation” of President Bush. The reference was quickly assailed by many on both sides of the political spectrum, saying it was racist or at least in poor taste. She made the remarks on Martin Luther King Day. Whether you agree with her choice of that word or not, what was she really saying? Was it a violation of freedom?

A few years ago, Robert Novak reported in his column that a certain woman was a CIA operative. He refused to name his sources. Investigators sought out those who leaked that information. It led to the White House without definitive legal proof at this time.No one even suggested that his column was a violation of freedom (in this case, freedom of the press), but wasn’t he putting the operative and even the United States in danger?

There’s a famous document that begins, “When in the course of human events …” The writers of that document were of course the founders of our country, but it was written in defiance of England, the legitimate ruler of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War. Were they exercising freedom of speech? If the Americans had lost the war, these patriots would surely have been hung for treason!

            Another example is burning the US flag in protest of government policies. Even though no words may be spoken, a powerful American symbol is being used to convey a message. Does freedom of speech end at destroying an American symbol? Some of our elected officials thought so and introduced an amendment to the Constitution.  What other limits need to be imposed on this freedom?

            Freedom is a hallmark quality of America. Freedom of speech is the preeminent mark of freedom.  It allows for discussion and debate on  on issues facing ouor great country.

Listening

            Speaking, however, implies listening, a key component in the right to speak freely about anything and everything.

            Leonard Pitts, in a recent column on a different but related matter, spoke to this issue: “There is, yes, a freedom of expression case to be made here. Also a word to be said for the need of tolerance in pluralistic societies. But I doubt if those most in needof hearing that case would be capable of understanding it.”          

            Let’s try harder to listen and undersand each other.

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