Playing Chicken With the First Amendment

As Americans, most of us take our First Amendment right to freedom of speech for granted.  We forget that there are many nations around the globe where political speech is restricted, and where speech critical of the government is banned.  Here, however, we enjoy the clash of words when we debate contentious issues; at least we used to.  I am not certain this premise holds true today, though.

Recently, an officer in a privately-held national company made a statement about his personal beliefs.  These beliefs were regarding the right of same-sex couples to marry.  I won’t delve into my own personal opinions and beliefs on this subject, rather I wish to simply take stock of the statement and public responses to it, both in support of it, as well as against it.

It is safe to say that the statement may not have been made if the company was a public corporate entity, traded on the markets.  It is not, though.  It is owned entirely by private individuals, and is not traded.  This means that an outcry from shareholders, or a negative hit on stock values due to market reaction is not a self-imposed restraint on public commentary on hotly-contested issues.

The First Amendment guarantees us the right to speak freely on any matter, from gun control to same-sex marriage to criticism of the government.  Each of us has the inherent right to voice our opinions, air our grievances and grind our axes to our hearts’ content.  This includes the corporate officer/family member who stated his support of the traditiona/Biblical definition of marriage.  This includes that company, or its owners, the right to financially support causes and beliefs that some of us reject.  In fact, such oppositional speech is at the core of the First Amendment.  That we must allow one another the freedom to speak our mind on any issue, whether we agree with it or not.

In the last several days, many Americans have taken a stand against the person’s public statement.  They have decided to boycott and protest the stated position, perceived as an attack on the rights of same-sex couples to marry.  This speech, as well as the decision of many to boycott or protest the company, is well within their free speech rights.  Similarly, many Americans have also opted to support the company’s (or, rather, its owner’s) statements by exercising their freedom to speak and to buy the company’s products in a show of solidarity.  Both of these groups are doing the right thing in taking action in support of their own beliefs.

The line must be drawn, however, when a government official makes statements not merely condemning a person’s speech, but going as far as to state that the company will be barred from operating within their jurisdiction.  This, of course, is patently unconstitutional.  The government has no right or privilege to so restrict either commerce or speech.  It has a chilling effect and serves only to intimidate or bully individuals, and their businesses, from exercising their First Amendment right.

If an individual decides to give or refuse to give, their money to a business, that is their own personal decision.  The government’s role is neither to foster or prohibit freedom of speech, the government is not entitled to discriminate against an individual, group or business because of political causes.  If a company, for example, were to take a public stance in favor of abortion, and certain elected officials, on the record, stated that such businesses would be run out of town in their municipalities, there would be a well-deserved public outcry.  This is not only warranted, but should be expected.

The level of tolerance to opposing speech has waned of late, this is true not only in the District of Columbia and in the various State legislatures, but also in Main Street America.  We have but to look at the commons of the internet to see the vitriol and pejoratives hurled at those with opposing views.  Rather than discussing the issues in a civil and respectful manner, many have resorted to animosity and personal attacks.  These sorts of arguments have served not to win over the minds of those with a differing view, but have further hardened and entrenched their opponents.  This is not limited to any particular political group, but, rather, each political view is well-represented by such poor advocates for their causes. 

If we wish to be able to engage in worthy debate, to address our concerns in a meaningful way, then the spite and intolerance must cease.  We would not have had a Declaration of Independence or a Constitution & Bill of Rights if our Founding Fathers had been so polarized that they refused to acknowledge the validity of others’ arguments.  For some reason, many Americans suffer under the historical delusion that the gentlemen in Philadelphia, New York, etc. skipped arm in arm down the path to the creation of the United States of America.  The correspondence and records we have access to are a splash of cold water on this illusion.  Those men were opinionated and were convinced that their individual views were right.  There were epic debates, both on and off of the floors, where these men contested their differences with articulate speech and persuasive arguments.  Had they resorted to the sorts of tactics relied upon today, there would have been deadlock and impasse. 

Ultimately, the crux of debate on any issue of essential liberties is that of tolerance.  Tolerance does not dictate that we agree with one another, but tolerance does dictate that we allow others the same freedoms we would ourselves enjoy and exercise.  We must tolerate even the most disagreeable speech and opinions, we must acknowledge others’ rights to their beliefs, as much as we protect our own. 

The climate of intolerance and personal attack must be overcome.  We must each extend our hand to our fellow citizen and acknowledge their belief, and their right to speak about that belief.  It is most imperative that we do this not when we are in full accord and agreement, but rather when we are in opposition to them.  This is the only way forward if we wish to have a people, and a government, dedicated to the core principles of liberty and equality espoused by the Constitution.

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