The Price Paid for the First Amendment

NOT since the McCarthy era has the evidence been so strong that a clear and present danger exists for First Amendment rights in general and academic freedom in particular. Since the willingness to curtail freedom of expression is apparent among conservatives and liberals alike, it is arguable that the danger now is greater than in the 1950s. Conservative voices, for example, are heard most clearly in the opposition to the Supreme Court's recent decision in Texas v. Johnson, and in the brouhaha surrounding two recent ``works of art'' - one of which consists of a crucifix suspended in the ``artist's'' urine. As repugnant to some as the treatment of these objects (the flag and crucifix) is, the voices that react by calling for limits on symbolic speech are surely mistaken for a reason imbedded in the Supreme Court's majority opinion.

The court's majority, like the Old Testament prophets of an earlier time, understands a fundamental point about the relationship between a symbol and the reality for which it stands. The prophets railed against graven images - ``symbols'' - because they understood that at best such images detracted appropriate attention from Jehovah - ``reality'' - and at worst could come to be considered the Deity. Confusion of symbol and reality in this case resulted in the sin of idolatry.

The flag is first and foremost a symbol for a variety of political and social realities, possibly the most important is the First Amendment right of free speech. The Supreme Court's majority opinion affirmed rightly that the symbol - the flag - is less important than the reality - free speech - for which it stands. To think otherwise would make one guilty of the secular equivalent of idolatry.

Liberal voices also are calling for restrictions on free speech. They are being heard on college and university campuses such as Michigan and Wisconsin, where penalties - including expulsion - can now be imposed for expressing opinions deemed derogatory to women, ethnic minorities, gays, or lesbians. Those who support these sanctions seem to be saying that bias, or at least its expression, has no place on US campuses. The ``fighting words'' doctorine, set forth in a 1942 Supreme Court ruling (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire), is often cited as a legal basis for curtailing freedom of speech by means of anti-bias rules.

To be sure, one's gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference are important ingredients of an individual. Ad hominem attacks on these grounds are repugnant, uncivil, reprehensible, and incompatible with the cannons of logic which should govern reasoned debate. Yet, the liberal voices, no less than the conservative ones, are mistaken in their hasty calls for restrictions - and for the same reason.

Common to both positions is the belief that the giving of offense is a sufficient ground for limiting freedom of speech. The problem with this position is that colleges and universities exist, among other reasons, to give offense by confronting their students with new ideas and by challenging their beliefs and systems of values, no matter how cherished. Furthermore, in many instances what one believes and values is no less central to who one is than gender, race, or sexual orientation.

But if restrictions on what can be said about the last three are permissible, then the same logic applies for beliefs and values. The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that nothing should be expressed - verbally or artistically - that gives offense regarding what someone believes or values. To state the matter in this fashion makes it clear why these liberal and conservative voices are such threats to academic freedom.

Giving offense - no matter on what grounds or in what form - cannot be allowed in and of itself to justify curtailing free speech. The proper response to the repugnant act, the tasteless work of art, or the offensive remark is to rebut, to reprimand, to counsel, to educate - not to gag.

We must pay a price for the First Amendment. Part of the price is the fact that we shall be subjected to much that is ugly, tawdry, ignoble, silly, offensive, or just plain false. While the First Amendment allows for that which is base, its wide application makes possible those creations we regard with awe.

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