College protests have risen in Missouri, at Yale, and elsewhere in response to systemic racism and racist language. Other protests have led to the cancelation of speakers whose political views were objected to by vocal groups of students and faculty. Not to be outdone, counter protests have risen to assert the overriding right of free speech. In the meantime, various pundits have sat on the sideline making catcalls about political correctness run amok.
Well, what the heck, I might as well wade into the fray along with the others.
The Constitution protects the right of free speech by way of the First Amendment which says that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech… .” That hasn’t stopped Congress from doing just that through laws as the Sedition Act of 1798, a law that expired a few years later. The courts have also constructed fences around freedom of speech through a long series of decisions in case law that I am not competent to review. The point is that freedom of speech is not unlimited freedom, and the limits generally have to do with speech that has or is likely to cause serious damage to others, either directly or to their other legally protected rights.
Right now we seem to have several free speech arguments afoot. One says that I can say whatever the hell I want and you can’t stop me. Another uses ‘politically correct’ (PC) as a derogatory accusation that someone is overly sensitive to and easily offended by common words that are derogatory and insulting but shouldn’t be taken seriously. And still another says we’ve had it up to here being subjected to language that is deeply offensive and does cause damage, and we’re not going to take it any more. You can see where this could lead, indeed has led.
The pen is mightier than the sword, at least according to Bulwer-Lytton’s play about Cardinal Richelieu in which the cardinal is given these lines:
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless!
Take away the sword,
States can be saved without it!
Some small inclination toward honesty compels me to admit that I have never read the play, but I love these lines. Anyway, if that’s true, then words are more powerful than all the bullets the NRA can pack into any weapon.
That’s one reason why freedom of speech is not entirely free. There are limits. It also means that speech, freely made, will have consequences, powerful consequences, and in the cases now before us, they are the arch-enchanters’ wands being aimed directly at elements of systemic racism that have long been tolerated as just good fun, just the way it is, and don’t be so PC about everything.
When I was in high school, many decades ago, we loved the word semantics, as in it’s just semantics. It’s what we said when we realized we were on the losing end of an argument, and we thought it meant something like, oh, it’s just words, they don’t really mean anything, get over it. Obviously we had no idea what semantics meant.
Words have meaning, powerful meaning. In casual talk we splatter them all over town without much thought about where they will land or what impact they will have. It doesn’t matter most of the time. It’s just talk. But when we lie, say something mean, spread a rumor, disparage another's good name, or a multitude of other verbal sins, we can and do cause great harm, sometimes more than can ever be healed or repaired.
When talk is not casual, when it is planned, calculated, and intentional, it becomes not just an enchanter’s wand; it can become the wand of Lord Voldemort capable of destructive evil, or it can become the wand of Harry Potter capable of defending that which is righteous and good. The line between the two is thin.
We are guaranteed freedom of speech because it is such a powerful tool. We are not guaranteed freedom from the consequences of our speech.