“Free” Speech — and its Enemies

“In this time when a citizenry applauds the liberation of a country as it lives in fear of its own freedom, when an administration official releases an attack ad questioning the patriotism of a legless Vietnam veteran running for Congress, when people all over the country fear reprisal if they use their right to free speech, it is time to get angry.” — Tim Robbins, addressing the National Press Club, 4/16/2003

“Now, applying an equal amount of absurdity to this ridiculous notion that Robbins attempts to gain credence with, I have a question. How is it that Tim Robbins is still walking free? Wasn’t somebody supposed to pick him up in a black helicopter? Who was it that blew that assignment? Didn’t the order go out for this guy to be behind bars a long time ago? How in the world is he still able to go to the National Press Club and say whatever he wants to say? Somebody has fouled up. Tim Robbins should have been silenced long ago…” – Rush Limbaugh, on his Web site.

Both of these guys are right, which is a fact that in itself should be enough to signal the apocalypse. But both are also running on a couple of interesting assumptions.

Tim Robbins is operating on the assumption that free speech means speech without personal consequence — that because one can say what one wants that everyone else’s proper reaction is to say “well, you have your right to say that,” and then go about their lives. But as we know, people aren’t like that. Politics are to grown-ups what boy bands are to 11-year-old girls: Criticize their favorites and you’ve got a blood enemy for life. Speech is a full-contact sport (metaphorically), and if you’re going to use it, you’ve got to be willing to take your lumps for it.

Therefore you have to accept that people are going to hate you and revile you for your positions. You have to accept that with your right to speak your mind, you accept that your opinion can have repercussions, particularly among the dim-witted who cannot hold two thoughts in their brain at the same time. These are the people who think that if you think gay people should be able to marry, that you spend a lot of time in public toilets cruising for action, or that if you’d like to keep a gun in the house that you eyeball the mail carrier through a rife scope every day because, after all, he’s from the government. Repeat after me: Stupid people are everywhere. It’s just the way it is. But let’s not pin it down entirely on stupid people. Stupid people are a continual problem, but it’s the smart people who know better that are the real problem.

Tim Robbins complains that too many people fear the repercussions of voicing their opinion. I sympathize, but I also have to ask what the value of an opinion is if you’re not willing to express it even at the risk of personal cost. This is why, paradoxically, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Janeane Garafalo are deserving of a certain amount of respect — you may think they are right or wrong (I personally think they were wrong about the value of the war), but you can’t deny they are out there voicing their opinions regardless of the backlash. They’re standing up for their views, and as far as I can see the problem is not that they’re standing up, but that those who want to but don’t, aren’t.

And the First Amendment is always under attack, from all sides, by well-meaning and/or ignorant people who believe free speech is fine and all most of the time, but now is a moment when we should all stand behind the president/ we should all think of the children/ we should all know that whatever that person is speaking about is just not right. The opposition to the first amendment is bi-partisan; the opposition to the first amendment is based in fear, based in ignorance, based in politics, based in distaste. We will never reach a point where people won’t have to accept the consequences for having controversial opinions. If you want to speak, you have to have the guts to stand by it. Robbins is right that it’s time people should get angry. Their passivity is a bad, bad sign.

But now let’s flip things around. Limbaugh’s opinion is that simply the right to free speech is enough, and really, it’s not. Granted that those who want to speak their minds must be willing to accept the personal cost of doing so, but on the other hand it’s not a positive thing when people go out of their way to imply that exercising one’s first amendment rights is something illegal, immoral or dangerous. This is exactly what conservatives are doing right now; switch on MSNBC’s Michael Savage, and he’ll tell you that people who are exercising their first amendment right to protest the war are guilty of sedition and treason. I don’t want to give Michael Savage too much credit for intelligence, but I suspect he knows that protesting is neither of these things; he just prefers to be partisan and dishonest about it. The good news is that more people watch curling than watch MSNBC. The bad news is that Fox News is still out there.

Conservatives, with their apparently-inbred inability to think of anything outside of the immediate political advantage, are cheerfully and cynically painting protest as something that should be made to shut up; they’re helping to create an atmosphere where free speech is regarded as suspect. Why would you think that? What’s wrong with you? That’s treason and you know it. It’s disingenuous to say that it’s only conservatives who do this sort of thing (recall the “politically correct” uproar of a decade ago), but it’s not inaccurate to say that at this moment, conservatives are leading the charge against the first amendment, for the worst of short-term reasons — after all, the war is already over – and with the worst of long-term implications.

It’s a little much to ask Rush to celebrate Tim Robbins’ right to free speech, but it’s not too much to have him acknowledge that some of his conservative brethren right now are actually saying that Tim Robbins and those with his opinions should be picked up by that black helicopter, and that is wrong. Conservatives have benefited from their right to free speech over the last two decades. It’s too bad they don’t think others should have those same rights — and that by their very words they’re working to create a world where dissent equals crime.

We should be willing to accept the consequences of our right to speak. We should also be willing to acknowledge the right to speak is a right to be celebrated. I don’t really see how you can have the one without the other.