Column: Free speech allows the good and bad in the name of freedom

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 1, 2002

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.&uot; &045;Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, signed July 4, 1776

This Thursday, July 4, we will celebrate 226 years since we declared our freedom from England. The United States has more freedom than any other country in the world &045; a quality most deserving of celebration.

Perhaps one of the most touted of our rights is the First Amendment, which grants us the freedom of speech. We live in a country where we can say anything that we want. We can publicly speak out against our government &045; even, if we wish, against the concept of our freedom of speech. Now that would be the ultimate Catch-22, wouldn’t it? Speaking out against our right to speak out.

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In other parts of the world, people have been arrested for speaking out. Consider living without this right. Consider the great essays and speeches that may have never been, or the things that may have never happened.

That freedom comes with its own costs, the highest cost being the loss of American lives during times of war. It has often been said that for our freedom, all gave some, and some gave all. I firmly believe that it is our duty to honor those that gave, be it some or all, by observing some of the responsibilities that our freedom brings.

One of those responsibilities is tolerating opinions different from our own. On many of the controversial issues, we may passionately disagree with whatever someone is saying. But regardless of the issue, or whether we agree or disagree with the speaker, it is our duty to defend his or her right to say it. We cannot prohibit someone from speaking out just because we don’t agree with what he or she has to say, given that the speech is taking place in an appropriate setting.

The Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis are allowed to hold public demonstrations to recruit new members. On the other hand, minority groups are also allowed to speak out against racial discrimination. Pro-choice activists are allowed to speak out as to why women should have the right to have an abortion. Pro-life activists speak out as to why abortion should be illegal. Recording artists are allowed to glorify sexual promiscuity, drug usage, hate crimes and violence against women in their songs. Adults may freely purchase pornographic magazines and videos. Homosexuals have the right to speak out on gay pride and the Moral Majority has the right to speak out against them. And, to the chagrin of many, burning the American flag is unfortunately protected under this right as well. We cannot take the right of expression away from them and expect to keep it for ourselves.

Another responsibility we should take when we speak out is to make sure we know what we are talking about. Speaking before we know the facts and repeating rumor as truth wastes the time of the listener and makes us look like imbeciles. Truth is not born from consensus. And, sadly, consensus is oftentimes not born from truth, but from rumor.

Most importantly, I believe we should be willing to be identified with our speech. It would be irresponsible for us to exercise our right to free speech while hiding behind our right to privacy. If hate groups, for example, want to speak out for their cause, we should let them &045; as long as they are willing to be publicly identified with their beliefs. No digitized blurring of the face, no mask, no pseudonyms allowed. If we are unwilling to be identified with what we say, we have absolutely no business saying it. The belief in a cause cannot be very strong if the speaker is unwilling to stand proudly behind his or her words. There are very few exceptions to this philosophy.

Those are my views on the responsibilities that come with our freedom of speech. It is a two-way street. Incidentally, right now there is some debate as to whether or not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is constitutional because an atheist was offended by the &uot;under God&uot; part. If this stands, students may not be able to say it as a group anymore &045; but nobody can keep them from saying it individually, either.

Dustin Petersen is an Albert Lea resident. His column appears Mondays.