1st Amendment

A Liberal Double Standard

**I first published this five, almost six, years ago, while I was teaching senior high school students. I am no longer a teacher, but the subject is still relevant so I am reposting it today.**

Let me first start, right from the top, by saying that this has nothing to do with political parties and everything to do with the small erosion of our rights.

Recently in class we have been studying the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments added to the Constitution in 1791. This is a yearly occurrence in my classroom with seniors and I try to get them to think about their rights in a different ways. I also try to point out areas in our society where the Constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights, makes the news almost on a daily basis. I try to impress upon them that this is still a living and active document. Some days are more successful than others.

The 1st Amendment has five clauses: freedom of religion, press, and speech; the right to assemble and petition the government. We focus on all of these, admittedly some more in-depth than others, but the one that usually makes me ponder more deeply about the state of our society is our “Freedom of Speech.” Because of our discussions in class, I can’t help but notice that our freedom seems to be getting eroded piece by piece, making this natural right harder and harder to use. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the government is taking away that freedom, we are actually doing it to ourselves.

It is generally believed that the only real limits to our speech are those that pose an imminent danger to society (i.e. shouting fire in a theater), statements of libel, or when there are certain national security interests involved (though there has been a flood of classified info on the government/national security in print lately). With these limitations in mind, why do we censor ourselves and others in society? The discussions with my seniors always make me wonder this. They believe that it is wrong to utter words that hurt someone’s feelings or that offend the sensitivities of others. They have all bought into that old adage that our mothers used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.                     – Voltaire (though attributed to Evelyn Beatrice Hall, his biographer)

Our debate in class usually begins with a discussion about the quote above. Based on the discussion, I can gauge that it appears to make sense to them and yet they still want to qualify it. They get stuck on the idea that something that may be offensive and, yes, even hurt someone’s feelings still shouldn’t be spoken. Have we gotten to be that sensitive, that thin-skinned, that mere words can hurt? What happened to the old “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” chant we used to hear on the playground? OK, yes, I admit it. Words can hurt. We all know that truth and I am sure we all have experienced it at some point in our lives. However, no matter how much they hurt, or are offensive to someone, don’t we (or they) have a right to say them if we choose to do so?

As of now, many of the words that have been CENSORED from society are still legal to say. We have taken it upon ourselves to declare them socially irresponsible, thus socially “illegal.” (Plug your ears or cover your eyes if you are sensitive because I am about to be socially irresponsible and politically incorrect). “Oh, that’s gay!” and “Man, that is so retarded.” There are other words out there but we don’t need to get into all of them. I think you understand my point. Now, we have seen our society jump all over people in the media or celebrities for using these words and typically there is an apology issued because of the pressure put on them via social media, etc. If directed at an individual and intended as an insult, these statements would obviously hurt an individual’s feelings or offend. If said as a general statement of disgust or disappointment, someone may get offended but in general there was no specific hurt intended or group targeted. This is the where the first part of Voltaire’s statement applies – “I disapprove of what you say, but…” Many people will say things that we don’t like or approve of. Many of us will be hurt by what others say or hurt others by what we say ourselves, but that is the crux of our liberty. We have the right to do so, if we choose, and we shouldn’t be made to censor ourselves because of someone else’s sensitivities.

This is one place where a liberal double standard comes in. In general, liberals are all about being open and permissive. “Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t do?” “I’ll do what makes me happy.” “Hey, live and let live.” “It’s MY truth.” We can see this attitude in our society as things that once were seen as unacceptable have become, increasingly, more acceptable. The list is long and I won’t even try to make it complete but I offer a few examples: abortion, tattoos, divorce, same-sex marriage, legal marijuana, assisted suicide, casual sex, atheism, nudity and cursing on television. As our society has grown more open and permissive in most areas, we have become more restrictive in others, language being one of them. So how far do we go in accepting these limitations? How much erosion of our freedom of speech can we tolerate? If it hurts someone’s feelings (and we are all a bit too sensitive these days), it is now off limits…I disapprove of what you say, but…

Let me be clear, I am not condoning the use of offensive or hurtful language. No one has a compelling need to use their words in that manner and certainly we should work to hone our own internal filters when it comes to the use of language. However, I am condoning a careful examination of the external censorship we allow others to exert on us. I have a right to say what I please and I have a right to choose not to talk that way. It was bestowed upon me at the foundation of my country. However, others do not have the right to tell me what I can and can’t say. The freedom of speech, as written in the Constitution, wasn’t intended to be abridged. There wasn’t supposed to be a limit on it, ever. Infringing my rights, or the rights of others, lets others censor us in the name of stamping out insensitivity. That sounds callous, I know, but the fact is that even in callousness there is freedom. “…but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It is better to be angry than to be silenced.”  Megan O

The quote above is from one of my senior students. She reworded and summarized Voltaire’s statement with a rather profound statement of her own. She realizes that being angered by someone’s voice is better than not hearing their voice, no matter how much she may disagree with what she hears. She understands that as soon as she silences the voice of another, her voice could be silenced as well. Her voice, as of now and into the future, isn’t something she is willing to give up.

Stunning and astounding doubt

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The above comment was left on my blog a couple of weeks ago and I have been struggling on what to do with it. I have my blog set so I can approve the comments and I marked this one as spam, not because I didn’t want a negative comment on my blog but because I didn’t want to give someone who is a Holocaust denier a voice.

The last part of that previous sentence resounds in my head – “…didn’t want to give someone who is a Holocaust denier a voice.” Why does it echo so loudly? Well, because I value the 1st Amendment and the right to free speech. Therein lies the struggle. Do I give this person a voice and try to convince them that they are wrong, or do I just pretend it didn’t happen and move on? My initial reaction was to just pretend it didn’t happen, but it has been nagging at me for the last two weeks for two reasons: 1) it is completely off base and should be countered; 2) by ignoring it and not giving the person a voice, I am going against what I believe is an important part of our society, regardless of whether it is offensive or completely wrong. People should be able to voice what they believe.

So, with it nagging me in the back of my head, I have sat on it and debated with myself about it. I posted it on my Instagram account and asked what they thought I should do. One very succinct response was that it was easy to counter because the claim is so far off base. The best part of the response was “If [he] died tomorrow, there would be less evidence that [he] ever existed than there is to prove the Holocaust was a historical fact. Yet, I doubt he would deny his own existence.”

That leaves me to pose two questions to my readers and fellow bloggers:

  1. What do you do with negative comments to your blog? Do you allow them AND ignore them by not responding OR do you allow them and respond?
  2. What do you think is the right approach for dealing with this particular comment? How would you respond?

I would appreciate your advice. What would you do?

Flashing – A Debate on Freedom of Speech

There’s a speed trap back there, dude. You better slow down and heed my flashing headlights before you get to it.

That’s what I think as I so thoughtfully flash my headlights at 4:30 in the afternoon on my way home from work. I drive the route twice a day, so I pretty much know all the places law enforcement likes to sit in waiting, like a spider waiting for a big fat insect to fly into it’s web. Of course, they change things up a bit and they aren’t always in the same places at the same times. I can’t blame them because that is what they are supposed to do, catch people speeding (although I honestly think there are probably more productive things law enforcement could be doing other than sitting around waiting for violators – that is a debate for another day).

Now, I know. I shouldn’t speed. No one should ever speed. I try not to but it happens sometimes. So, before we get side tracked by the whole “You wouldn’t need to flash your lights if they (or you) weren’t speeding in the first place” argument let me just say that if you have never sped (either on purpose or inadvertently) then you may throw the first stone. Otherwise, bite your tongue.

The questions is, “Can I flash my headlights to warn other drivers of a speed trap?” Recently there has been a minor debate about this question and I have even had driver’s ed students ask about this during classroom instruction. For the most part, my answer has always been that in Washington state it is illegal, per RCW (Revised Code for Washington) 46.37.230. However, this has always bothered me because I believe that flashing my headlights is a form of communication (speech, if you will), which is obviously much more effective than me rolling down my window and yelling at passing cars.

Background

This RCW seems to be open to a bit of interpretation however. It is typically the one cited in “flashing light” tickets, but there is nothing in the language specifically that says “flashing,” only that a vehicle must lower their headlights from high to low for oncoming vehicles within 500 feet and when approaching from the rear of a vehicle within 300 feet. This article from the Seattle Times (2008) where, according to Trooper Pratt, “they are for illumination, not communication.” The article continues, “It’s illegal to flash your high beams or activate them within 500 feet of an approaching vehicle, and 300 feet if you’re coming up behind another vehicle.”

First, Troopers Pratt and Merrill (the latter was also interviewed for the article) must be misinformed. The RCW didn’t say anything about flashing headlights and yet they say that the fine for “inappropriate flashing of high beams” has increased from $101 to $112. So, if our law enforcement officers don’t know the law, then how are we supposed to be clear on what is allowed and what isn’t? Second, there are parts of our state that have signs that say, “Daylight headlights section,” or something to that effect (signs probably vary). If it is during the day, there is plenty of light and the headlights are clearly not for illumination so they must be for communication to other drivers so they take notice of the vehicles on the roadway.

Your Rights – The First Amendment

There have been several cases in recent years that have started to shed some light (no pun intended) on laws such as the one in Washington. First, let me highlight the one in Florida. In this instance, the court eventually ruled that indeed the First Amendment had been violated and that flashing your headlights is a legitimate form of communication. Florida soon changed it’s laws to reflect the protection of this civil right. In Missouri recently, once again, a court decided that flashing of one’s headlights was not illegal and is protected free speech. There have been cases in Utah and Tennessee that follow along the same lines.

Jonathan Turley, a criminal attorney and a professor at George Washington University Law School, said courts across the country are dealing with the same issue. In virtually every case except those still being decided, the person cited has prevailed, Turley said.

“This has sweeping implications for the First Amendment,” Turley said. “What this citizen is doing is warning other citizens about the violation of law. People regularly warn others about the possibility of arrest. There’s no difference between a verbal warning and a mechanical warning. Both are forms of speech.” (Missouri article)

The ultimate point is that if you are given a ticket that involves flashing your headlights, your First Amendment rights likely have been violated. Whether you are in my state or another, law enforcement doesn’t have a clear handle on what is permissible and what isn’t and in most cases they are just miffed because you seemingly were interfering with what they considered a need for enforcement. Could you be causing a danger in flashing your lights? I suppose you could be, but that is a purely subjective call, one law enforcement seems to have expanded beyond reasonable application.

If you are wondering where your state falls on this issue, Wikipedia has a pretty good list of not only states where it may or may not be illegal but even some countries that address the issue as well. As far as I can tell from my research, there are no pending cases for this issue currently in Washington state. So, if you get a ticket for it, you could be the one to challenge it and change the law for all in Washington state. In the Missouri case, the ACLU took on the case which likely didn’t cost the individual much money, if any at all.

I think the key here is that no matter the intent, whether to warn someone out of their criminal intent or out of legitimate concerns for public safety, it has the same effect – it causes people to slow down, even if only briefly. That, in and of itself, may be all that is needed to prevent an accident or a ticket – that clearly isn’t be a negative thing.

So, I say, “LET THE FLASHING BEGIN!” Fight for your First Amendment freedoms.