Free speech under attack from right, left

President Trump and some liberal college students have something important in common.

They don’t like the statements made by others, whether professional football players or conservative writers, and they demand an end to such statements.

The reason that Trump and the students oppose free speech, even to the point of preventing a person from speaking, is fear that what others say may convince somebody of something. Even worse, such opposition may show they want to limit free speech to their viewpoint alone.

Ironically, the more free speech is opposed, the more attention the expression gets. We get to learn about why football players are protesting – government sanctioned racial discrimination – and the positions of campus speakers who are silenced – sometimes extremely conservative.

One of the characteristics of the U.S., distinguishing it from most other countries, is the First Amendment. Elsewhere, government and laws often limit what people may say. While, like any other right, government may apply some limits, the American system favors debate in the sunshine as the best way to oppose views you don’t like.

You cannot fly the Nazi flag in some European countries. Just as the Europeans, millions of Americans engaged in a war against the Nazis. But government here cannot stop you from flying a Nazi flag. You are also free to demonstrate against this display, but government cannot legally tear down the flag or stop demonstrators.

Free speech is part of the American character. Expression has always been bold and outspoken. Belief in the Constitution and our form of government is strong enough to allow Americans to tolerate dissenting or opposing views. Sometimes, over the long term, the unpopular, minority view prevails.

In fact, people take pride in displaying the strength of a system allowing unpopular dissent. One often-quoted sentence embodies the concept: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

What about outright lies? They abuse the right. Individuals affected have the right to legal action. Otherwise, free debate should expose them. For example, the Washington Post Fact Checker does an excellent job keeping tabs on political claims. It is kept quite busy.

Trump’s attacks on NFL players who “take a knee” when the National Anthem is played reflect his natural petulance, playing to his supposed core constituency, trying to deflect attention from other issues by the use of phony patriotism, or all of the above.

The president has a right to express his views. The problem is that he is not acting presidential, breaking another of his campaign promises. How football players behave when the National Anthem is played is unimportant compared with leadership in dealing with the threat of nuclear war or natural disasters.

We expect the president to unify and lead, not always to seek or, worse, create domestic conflict. He needs to use carefully his right of free speech because of his position. If he disturbs the “domestic tranquility” promised by the Constitution, we worry.

College students who try to block campus speakers, whom they believe advocate views and policies that are wrong or dangerous, are undermining their own education. Free discourse allows us all not only to hone our personal values but also to better understand opposing views.

Freedom of speech is not a First Amendment right; it is a natural right. “All people are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights…. Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish sentiments on any subject….”

Those are the words of the Maine Constitution, not the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, but it does not explicitly reaffirm the natural right of each person to free speech, as does the Maine Constitution. It bans government from passing laws “abridging the freedom of speech” of all, not only citizens.

There may be problems with this “natural right” when the Supreme Court classifies corporate political spending as speech. That means all people get free speech, but some non-people may purchase it. Big money buys big talk, which threatens to drown out opposing views.

We all have to judge what we hear and read. Decisions about matters ranging from whom we support for president to where we choose to live are all based on what we have learned.

If you don’t want to hear a speaker, don’t listen. But don’t try to close the door for others.

Freedom of speech belongs to us, as listeners, writers, readers, and speakers. It’s our natural right.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.