Our amendment rights, where to draw the line

By Austin Campbell

News Editor

acampbell@unca.edu

Photo by Austin Campbell
Photo Illustration of American flag flying backwards

Trends in America and globally have blurred the line between true freedom of speech and limited freedom of speech. As a result, moral questions tied to our rights have taken place. Is it OK to say something offensive if it hurts another? Should we control or limit someone’s speech if we want to silence a disagreeable opinion collectively? 

In recent years, society has taken shape to become a great echo chamber of thoughts, ideas and reactions, a seeming hive-mind collective of the moral “do’s and don’ts,” of what to say, think or how to react to events. 

Many trends in the US will have young people regurgitating trendy words or ideas off social media. Unfortunately, the consistent stimuli doesn’t give anyone the ability to think over a thought long enough to form their own opinions. 

We see and hear provocative things on a day-to-day basis now, and more often than not, some of the things we encounter can be pretty violent or enraging. For example, in the political limelight shines a hot-topic, controversial and highly polarizing court case, WI v. Rittenhouse.

Everyone you encounter who knows about the case has an opinion, and more often than not, it’s not very neutral. 

The case highlights a dissonant split in America at the moment. “You think Rittenhouse is innocent? You must be a Trumpster-loving gun-toting maniac.” or the contrary, “You think he’s guilty? I bet you’re a liberal snowflake who voted for sleepy Joe.”

Realistically speaking, most people choose their stances in life because what they’ve been told aligns with their political parties, not because they feel that way. So how would anyone who hasn’t professionally or legally analyzed this case know what they’re talking about?

Most people have seen the videos of the shootings in Kenosha, but without being there, people have seriously uninformed opinions about the case. Americans on both sides of the political spectrum echo the repeat-after-me style phrases from their political parties or friends.

The public education system honed Americans not to think too critically about the information presented to them, to not retain essential facts and learn the exact phrasing needed to pass the tests. Unfortunately, that imprinting doesn’t simply wash away after high school graduation, it also bleeds into our beliefs on freedom of speech.

We’ve got a modern society of worker drones who are trying to pass the collective test of their peers and what they think is the answer to being an American.

Our actual free speech and concept of self-originality have been overruled by societal groupthink and the cozy ideals of not making people uncomfortable.

The definition, why does it not make sense?

The definition of free speech is blurry at best and downright confusing at worst. The definition has only loosely taken shape through court cases over the previous centuries. Free speech has its limitations, typically drawing the line of legality over the term obscenity. 

In the court case Miller v. California (1973) the US Supreme Court legally defined obscenity. First, the average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interests. Second, the material in question depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct as defined by state law; and third, that the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The issue arose when the defendant, Miller, sent a large number of pornographic advertisements to houses in support of the sale of adult films or items.

Though we have a clear definition of what actions or ideas are considered obscene, with the inclusion of child pornography in New York v Ferber (1982), actions that large sections of America find offensive are still legally protected.

In the US, there is no legal definition of hate speech. Even more so, some statements regarded as hate speech are legally protected by the constitution. We have decided to allow the horrific extremes of free speech because the minute we start to control expression, no one truly knows what the legislation will manipulate next.

In Virginia v. Black (2003) the case ruled that the Klu Klux Klan burning crosses was a “true threat,” to freedom of speech in America.

The court case is essentially stating that it’s legally OK to be racist or in a hate group, until your actions start to terrify or cause terror in public.

Cohen v. California (1971) a court case over free speech regarding clothing, protecting individual rights to wear what they want. A man wore a jacket that said “Fuck the draft, stop the war!” about the Vietnam war. The supreme court ruled in favor that he was allowed to wear it.

“One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric,” said Justice John Marshall Harlan, in regard to the case.

These shifts in tone between cases can leave a large sense of legal ambiguity and confusion on what the American government and constitutional rights properly protect.

Where does the legal line for free speech genuinely rest, and who does it protect in America? As for confusion, it’s legally OK to wear a Nazi brown shirt and Totenkopf SS death camp hat to Ingles so long as they’re not handing out child porn to the crowd. Though sounding like an extreme example I created, this was a true instance I witnessed in Black Mountain, N.C. this month.

Free Speech: Choosing legality over morality

In Western North Carolina and the entirety of the South-Eastern US, there are undeniable actions of racism or hate that are present in our culture. 

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 29 known and active hate groups in N.C. as of 2020. These groups, as defined by the law center, range from white supremacy-based, anti-immigration-based, anti-white-based, to generalized hate groups. However, these varying groups have one major thing in common: they exhibit hate and publicly express it through actions and words. 

So long as these groups or hateful individuals are not harassing a person, their words and actions are legally protected.

First amendment protections also extend beyond speaking. They also protect the actions that Americans take, including how we dress or represent ourselves.

This is why it’s legally, though not morally, acceptable to be a neo-Nazi in the US. Only in a country so supportive of true freedom of speech could people take these controversial political stances. 

There is a certain irony with Americans exercising their right to free speech to take on Nazi ideology. Only by having that American freedom are they allowed to have those viewpoints and essentially live action role play as Nazi soldiers.

Historically, the Nazi regime did not support free speech or freedom of expression. If these neo-Nazis openly expressed themselves in a similar way that they are in the US, they would have been executed. 

American and Allied military members fought and killed millions of Nazis to protect the American right to free speech, and now you have these neo-Nazi Americans who dress up as a disgusting adversary of the American ideaology of equality for all.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have fought and died to protect our rights as a country. I was a former active duty US Air Force member, now a disabled veteran. I was willing to kill or be killed to protect our rights as Americans. There were people I served with who I disagreed with politically. There are millions of Americans I don’t agree with on a single personal or political issue, but I would still die to ensure their ability to believe what they want to think. 

Therein lies another question– should America allow freedom of expression for political groups that don’t support any expression in their platform? Fascist and communist governments worldwide don’t let their citizens take any view unparalleled to their government beliefs, yet America does. Take the extreme examples of censorship in countries such as Eritrea or North Korea or Mexico, countries that kill and jail journalists and citizens for expressing their thoughts.

Equal opportunity for all includes equality for hatred, equal opportunity for political ideology and equal opportunity for expression. Anyone can hate anyone, can offend anyone and can say whatever they want. In the same way that someone can express an offensive idea, it’s an equal right for people to take offense.

Typically, the strongest emotions evoked on free speech factor during displays of hatred or bigotry toward another person or group. However, contrary to popular belief, controversial opinions are also protected under the first amendment. Though there are significant gaps in the legal definition of free speech, many Americans should consider their morality with choosing their actions.

To have such a great right, such as freedom of speech, we must accept the consequences of unrestricted freedom. We cannot censor our fellow citizens just because we don’t like their opinion. We need to pride ourselves on our extraordinary diversity and spectrum of people that live in this country. Above all, remind ourselves that we’re all American, no matter what our beliefs are.