A Free People Erasing Their Own Freedoms

The Greek city-state of Athens had no constitutional protections for people who advocated notions radically at odds with prevailing wisdom.

The result: Socrates was put to death for “corrupting” the youth.

Four hundred years later, the Roman province of Judea contained no constitutional protections for wild-eyed preachers who advocated radical alternatives to established political and religious orthodoxies.

The result: Jesus was crucified for claiming to be "King of the Jews."

Sixteen hundred years later in Italy, there were no constitutional protections for thinkers who discerned profound restructuring of metaphysical realities.

The result: Galileo Galilei was tried and sentenced to house arrest by the Catholic Inquisition for advocating views contrary to Church doctrine.

Four hundred years later, the United States of America did provide constitutional protections of speech and assembly, allowing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead a movement that changed laws and expanded liberty for millions.

Socrates, Jesus and Galileo lacked governmental protection to say crazy things. As a result, they were put to death or imprisoned by the government for saying crazy things.

True, Dr. King also met with an untimely end, slain by a fellow citizen who denied him his constitutionally protected freedoms. But the others were killed or imprisoned by the government because they had no constitutionally protected freedoms.

That is all the difference in the world. And it is a difference that Dr. King died for.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution allowed Dr. King to spread his liberating and glorious message. But let us not forget that for many in the 1960's South, Dr. King’s message was considered offensive “hate speech.” And so it was — hatred for the established order that kept millions of Americans locked in a horrible caste system. Hatred for an oligarchy that denied them essential freedoms.

It just goes to show, one man’s hate speech is another man’s emancipation. One person’s offense is another person’s release.  Which is why the Founders, in their wisdom, protected all speech when they approved the charter for the new American Republic in 1787 and included therein a First Amendment that explicitly guaranteed freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion.

Now those protections are threatened, threatened because they are now frighteningly little cherished, especially by young people.  A 2015 Pew Research survey found"Four-in-ten Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups."

Let that sink in for a moment: 40 percent of Millennials favor explicit, unconstitutional censorship of "offensive" speech.  The same Pew survey found that 35 percent of all Democrats and 33 percent of all women "say the government should be able to curtail speech that is offensive to minorities."

As if that isn't frightening enough, a federal judge recently advised his colleagues to ignore the Constitution.  Writing for Slate, Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals admonished:

"I see absolutely no value to a judge... studying the Constitution, the history of its enactment, its amendments, and its implementation.  Eighteenth-century guys, however smart, could not foresee the culture, technology, etc., of the 21stcentury. Which means that the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights... do not speak to today."

This erosion of loyalty to the Constitution -- by large sectors of the populace and those charged with protecting and preserving it -- is both foolish and dangerous.  Let us not forget that the "feelings" of white Southerners would have been protected with restrictions on Dr. King's speech.  Fortunately, King knew that the ideas embodied in the Constitution did speak to him and his time, just a they speak still to us and our time:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

True, these words were written by white, moneyed men in the late 18th-Century. But, if we can look past the color of the hands that shaped them, we could see profound elegance, foresight and astonishing courage.

So let judges adhere to the Constitution, not because it constricts, but because it liberates. Let young people hear all manner of speech, even (especially) offensive speech. And let us remember the words of Socrates, Jesus, Galileo and Martin Luther King Jr. were all at one labeled “offensive.”

Let us not throw away the greatest gift ever given to a sovereign people, the freedom to think, speak, associate and worship according to the dictates of our conscience.  

Let us us keep the First Amendment first in our hearts.

Matt Patterson is president of 1st Amendment First; Lindsey DePasse is executive director of 1AF.  They can be reached at 1stamendmentfirst.org

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