What are the limits of Free Speech?

There has recently been some controversy in Kingsport, which has centered on the trade-off between good order and safety versus the exercise of free speech and freedom to assemble. One effort has been focused on the erection of temporary structures on city-owned land without a permit. More recently, there have been objections about the rhetoric used by some members of the public at the Board of Mayor and Alderman meetings.

The Times-News reported that the BMA is concerned with the public comment segment and “about what’s being said at its meetings. Or more important, how things are being said.” Alderwoman Betsy Cooper expressed concern that “Public comments have gotten to be people coming up here and saying a lot of untrue things.”

This has been a longstanding issue. When I was on the BMA almost two decades ago, I complained that the media had reported a blatantly untrue statement. The response was, “We don’t report the truth. We report the facts.” I asked, “If someone states something that is patently false, then it’s OK to report it (and give it credence) simply because it was said?” The response was a simple, “Yes.” It was a harsh lesson in the unpleasant side of local politics.

How do you allow legitimate expression of dissent from the population without infringing on the rights of others? How do you mandate good behavior without abridging free speech? Where are the boundaries?

There is an old saying about freedom of expression, “Your right to swing your fist ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” In actions, that is pretty clear. But what about words? When do your words hit my nose (or ears)? Is it enough to simply say you find it offensive?

Perhaps we ought to return to the rights that are actually guaranteed in our society. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights states, “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, … or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That is a pretty broad statement, and it has generally been made stronger by the ruling of the courts.

Does this guaranteed right of freedom of speech require the participant to state the truth? Are opinions outside the bounds of protected speech? Much of what we see playing out on the national scene is focused on just this point. “Fake News” is nothing more than an extreme interpretation of words and actions to support a particular view. There is generally some factual reality behind such “news,” but is it the “truth?”

What is the “truth?” Who gets to determine the “truth?” Is it left up to us (clearly gullible) citizens?  What responsibility does an individual have to assess the information they receive and determine its validity? Honestly, it really wasn’t that hard during the 2016 elections to ascertain that much of what was on social media was just hog-wash. The “click-bait” was easy to recognize: “You’ll be Amazed! It will Shock you! You Won’t Believe What Happens Next! The Secret They Don’t Want You to Know!” After reading such inflammatory headlines a couple of times, I just killed the feeds from those idiots.

If “we the people” are incapable of reasoned thought, who should we allow to censor our information. Social media companies are being pushed to be more proactive in shutting down “fake news” sites. However, those same big companies, like Google and Facebook, are allowing closed countries like China to throttle the information available to their citizens. Clearly, we cannot count on them to be either consistent or even-handed.

In George Orwell’s dystopian world of “1984,” the government created a new language, Newspeak, the whole goal of which “is to narrow the range of thought? In the end, we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” If you control the language, you control people’s behavior. Is that what we want? When we push the government to intercede too actively, we set ourselves on the road to totalitarianism.

Despite my frequent desire to win the argument, to have people agree with me without complaint, I fundamentally believe that it is better to err in favor of fewer restrictions and greater freedoms.

In this context, I would encourage our political leadership to be very cautious in restricting public comment, even if it requires getting a thicker skin. Regardless of how unpalatable they find the comments, it ultimately serves us better when we are free to disagree.

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