Where Do Lines Of Free Speech End?


Freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of speech are just several of the principles on which the founding fathers established this nation. Since the creation of the Bill of Rights, there have been many court cases disputing the possible existence of privileges not explicitly stated in the Bill of Rights. One such court case, Schenck vs. United States (1919) aimed to defend the Espionage Act of 1917 during the First World War. In his famous dissent for this case, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., wrote, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” The question that this example raises is, where does the line for freedom of speech and expression end, and at which point are we, as a society, no longer tolerant of differing opinions? Tolerance is crucial for a developing society, but lines should be drawn if the words are translated into action and an individual uses their opinion to target another individual or group of people.

Recently, there has been some outrage regarding a Florida high school student who was told that he needs to stop adding the phrase, “God Bless America,” to the end of his morning announcements. After the principal of Yulee High School received a detailed six page letter from the American Humanist Association, which advocates for atheists and a secular government, he told the student he should repeat the announcements without improvisation. “Students are certainly free to say ‘God bless America’ in their own personal context any time they want to,” said David Niose, the association’s legal director. “But when we are talking about morning announcements, it is not a free speech forum.”

So because some students are offended by the notion of God, another student has to suppress his feelings? That is mostly certainly not the ideal on which this country was built on. Freedom of speech and freedom of self-expression should be given to an individual, no matter their belief, as long as that form of free speech does not impede anyone else’s safety or well-being. “God Bless America” does not actually harm anyone; it only makes the individuals in question uncomfortable.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, as long as that opinion does not cross over into violence. One does have to look far into the past for such examples. A recent shooting in Copenhagen was due to a cartoonist’s, Lars Vilks’, offensive depiction of Mohammed. Vilks was the target of gunmen who were angered by his caricatures. He had every right to express his views—they were simply words on paper, which while offensive, did not translate into violence. With regards to the Florida example, the group of people who are forced to listen to an aspect of a belief they do not subscribe to, have an unwarranted anger because their anger does not stem from any tangible form of oppression, hate or violence. In this particular example, the words do not put the atheists in harm’s way; this group is not forced to act on the meaning of these words by any means of violence or physical harm. The atheists can very easily ignore these words, and allow others to express their opinions.

We do not live in a utopia where everyone lives in harmony. For a society to become more tolerant, we need to accept others views, even if they do differ from our own. The lines need to be drawn if the opinions are actualized into violence. No one should express themselves in a manner that is in itself violent. In the examples of the shootings in Paris and Copenhagen, the cartoonists themselves did not do anything to incite the violence, only those who disagreed with their opinions committed the crimes. One does not have to like their cartoons, but it is within the cartoonists’ right to have created these drawings. Similarly, the high school student who says, “God Bless America” is exercising his freedom of speech, and instead of censoring his rights, others should understand that a school setting is one where acceptance and growth can be developed in a more tolerant environment. The only time boundaries should be drawn if the words themselves are translated into hate crimes.