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Abortion, colleges, Islam...the limits of free speech

I'm a big fan of the 1st Amendment, generally. I'm anti-censorship...especially when it comes to books in schools. And I've always fancied myself a Voltaire admirer in the vein of "I disagree but will defend to the death your right to say it" (even though Voltaire never actually said that). You know what Voltaire did actually say? "Use, but do not abuse."

Americans sometimes operate under the mistaken idea that we have absolute free speech. But that's not true. You can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater. You cannot use fighting words. You can't use obscenity. You can't make false statements. You can't incite violence. You can't use speech owned by others. Commercial speech is less protected.

There's actually a complicated legal network of exceptions to the entire 1st Amendment. You can't have prayer in school. You don't have a right to assemble on private property. There are guidelines. And we certainly don't want to go throwing people in jail for speech crimes or punishing before something is spoken. Unpopular ideas deserve protection. Especially in the middle of thoughtful discourse.

On the other hand, 21st century life is creating situations that are challenging. You have large segments of American society, for instance, creating a hostile environment against minorities. You have pro-life advocates using tough speech calling abortion "murder." To the point that there was a terrorist attack on Planned Parenthood this weekend. You have people who are being paid by large corporations to smear others and use money to influence political favors in their direction. It's harder to stand by free speech in these instances.

The other day I found myself in a few interesting conversations about the media. In the middle of the Mizzou protests which resulted in administration upheaval and scuffles on campus between journalists and students, I found myself siding with another Constitutional right--privacy. It's not fancy and as popular to throw around...but I'd argue most of the rest of the Bill of Rights stems from it. It's what keeps the government out of our bedroom behavior. It's what keeps the media from being allowed to publish our photo without permission and keeps our medical records out of public hands. In some ways, it's counter-intuitive. We have sunshine laws to make the records of public officials public. But private citizens get an increased level of scrutiny before the wall is broken. We have a general Constitutional right to be left alone. Which, of course, has its own limitations just like free speech. This post isn't meant to be a legal chat about when privacy trumps speech and vice versa. And you can't get away with not paying your taxes because "privacy."

Just making the point, however, that students on a college campus have a right to tell the media "no." You have a right to what medical procedures are done on your body...including whether or not you carry a fetus if you're a woman. You have a right to be a Muslim without extra security checks because of your faith or dress. You have a right to be African-American without extra police stops because of your skin color. You have a right to be in a gay marriage without some idiot behind a store counter refusing to cater your wedding. Your business. Not theirs. Not the government's. If you think abortion is "murder" against "babies," that's fine. Keep that to yourself. Because there is no room in civil discourse for you to incite hatred against doctors or women any more than it's ok for you to call for lynching blacks, beating up gays (or trans) or calling Islam a religion of terrorism.

Free speech, privacy, the marketplace of ideas...these operate not just on the assumption that ideas should circulate freely but that every American has a fundamental right to operate in the public realm without a verbal assault. In order to truly have "freedom of speech," we must make room and protect the citizens who will be making that speech. In other words, freedom only exists when everyone is free to go about their daily lives on an equal footing. The freedoms of the Bill of Rights only flow because of equality. Not the other way around.

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