For several years I attended every home football game at Western Connecticut State University so that I could network with faculty, donors and other friends. The president’s box, where I did my thing, was adjacent to the press box, where student journalists and coaches sat. One day, immediately following an egregious referee decision on the field, someone in the press box shouted an epithet-laced retort, which everyone next door heard. We all paused. One member of our audience, a law professor, pronounced judgment: “Vulgar and ill-considered, but constitutionally protected!”
At the risk of sounding ponderous, the First Amendment creates a lot of situations like this, although they often pose tensions that are much more treacherous.
Here are three recent examples where protected free speech has made people uncomfortable, angry, and even murderous.
In Garland, Texas, the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest displayed drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, an act that is consider blasphemy by Muslims. Two gun-carrying men planned to attack people in the exhibit hall but were killed by police.
At Valdosta State University in Georgia, students walked on the U.S. flag as a protest of the country’s slave-holding history. A military veteran removed the flag from the ground and resisted campus police officers, who intervened to return the flag to the protestors. View a dramatic video of the confrontation here.
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which represents more than 500 campus-based writing projects and thousands of writers, removed a poet from a committee planning the association’s 2016 annual meeting because some members object to her current project on Twitter, where she is posting, one line at a time, the text of the novel “Gone With the Wind.” They object to the novel’s tolerance of racism.
These freedom of speech situations present plenty for observers of all political persuasions to be aghast about.
The First Amendment for the most part protects writers and political speakers – and all of us — from government censure and intrusion. Without it, American democracy would not be what it is today. But it poses challenges to normal people who love the Constitution but who also think that not everything needs to be said. And people who will argue for the protection of one set of statements often find that personal political beliefs get in the way of their general support for freedom of speech.
For instance, the same people who are sensitive to religious beliefs that are different than their own and who question the point of printing drawings of Muhammad wouldn’t question the U.S. flag as a valid, and Constitutionally protected, target for political protest.
These are the kinds of debates that form on the fringe of the First Amendment. Some of it is very difficult, and uniquely American.
What do you think?
Paul Steinmetz is the director of Community Relations and Public Affairs for Western Connecticut State University and the principal of Writing Associates, providing publicity and writing services for businesses, institutions and individuals.