Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Express Yourself

Isn't that the name of a Madonna song? And why am I using precious brain cells to store that information, but not the comparatively more important information such as where I put my glasses down? And anyway, the words I wanted to think about today are these:
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.

Random news-bits throughout the week have come together in my head to make me wonder where the limits are? Are there limits? Should there be limits? My fall-back position is that freedom of speech requires that I defend someone's right to say vicious, stupid, and bigoted things. I can hate what he says, but I have to defend his right to say it. And honestly, I think I can even personally discourage a person from speaking, if no good can come from it. But if he chooses to speak, in spite of my clearly greater wisdom (sarcasm there, in case you missed it), then I have to defend his right to do that.

Do I, then, have to defend Fred Phelps's right to picket outside Coretta Scott King's funeral? Of all the despicable, shameful, vulgar, crude, vain (pulling myself together) attempts at getting his point across, this surely takes the cake. And besides, his point is actually fairly despicable, shameful, vulgar, crude, and vain, too. Yet, as long as he doesn't physically accost people, I think I do have to defend his right to be there. Damn.

Okay, what about the cartoon in Denmark, depicting a bomb under Mohammed's turban? Yes, I know that freedom of speech in Denmark isn't protected under our Constitution. Work with me here; it's the idea I'm interested in. We can hardly call these cartoons nuanced cultural commentary. They're ignorant, inflammatory, and just plain rude. But yes, they have a right to exist. Although I am intrigued by the suggestion that I heard this morning on NPR that some Islamic group is going to print cartoons about the Holocaust to see how far we're willing to go to protect free expression. We'll find out if we mean it, I guess.

Here's what scares me about my conclusions, however. Both Fred Phelps and the cartoonist whose name I don't know force me into defending the rights of the craziest and most dangerous among us. That's annoying, particularly in light of the domestic spying which has targeted regular, apparently not dangerous people just living their lives.

And what law did Cindy Sheehan break exactly at the State of the Union? There's a law against wearing political t-shirts to Congress? Really? Show me where it is. And if you can find it, tell me why the Congressperson's wife wearing a pro-war t-shirt wasn't arrested. Okay, good manners would suggest that you dress up for the State of the Union, and Cindy Sheehan is certainly capable of getting attention from the press no matter what she has on. But surely she has a right to wear whatever shirt she chooses, and surely that right is protected by the Constitution. And wouldn't you just think that at the State of the Union, the capitol police would have been charged with celebrating non-threatening freedoms of expression? Because just maybe it's fundamental to who we are as a union? Call me an idealist.

But the cynical piece of my nature is starting to win out here. Somehow it's happened that the dangerous, arguably nutty people have greater protections than the just-folks with vaguely left-leaning political convictions. I'm in the slightly mind-bending position of defending Fred Phelps, who certainly would not return the favor. And simultaneously, the message from the federal government is that they wouldn't extend me the same courtesy either. And wait.... it's not a courtesy; it's a right.

We're in deep trouble, boys and girls.

No comments: