For the French-impaired: “Are we really Charlie?” The vicious attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris have spurred a wonderful viral catchphrase of solidarity with Paris and the victims of the two terrorist attacks: “Je Suis Charlie” Its easy to say but harder to uphold. But in America today you would be hard-pressed to say that we value, honor and protect the First Amendment as intensely as we once did. For one thing – we did not even send a high ranking official to the solidarity march in Paris this weekend so how could we claim to “be Charlie” when we can’t even get John Kerry or Joe Biden to go to Paris. Eric Holder was already actually in Paris and still he didn’t go. Simply shameful.
But beyond this diplomatic faux pas, our country’s commitment to the First Amendment took some serious hits these last few years. Do you think any American newspaper would have the courage to print the satirical cartoons Charlie Hebdo ran? Despite the fact that nearly all reasonably-minded people would be able to distinguish a criticism of Islamic extremism from an attack on Islam in general, the outcry for political correctness would be huge if say, the NY Post ran the identical cartoons. While I would disagree with any media outlet that tried to use cartoons to attack an entire religion over the acts of a select few extremists, I would support their right to do so. Those who disagree are free to boycott the media outlet, protest against them or start another form of campaign against the company. While it would be clearly within their First Amendment rights to print the cartoon I just don’t believe they ever would.
The First Amendment has also taken hits on college campuses where many institutions in the name of inclusiveness have enacted and enforced “speech codes” that prohibit students and organizations form making statements about certain groups. While much of that speech can be categorized as “hate speech” less offensive expression of speech would still be prohibited by the code. College students last year demanded that invitations to Condoleeza Rice (at Rutgers University) and Bill Maher (UC-Berkeley) be rescinded due to the proposed speakers viewpoints on various issues. We have gotten to the point where we are too delicate to even HEAR an offensive viewpoint.
But even hate speech should be protected by the First Amendment particularly on college campuses. The free discussion of all viewpoints – whether you view those viewpoints as right or wrong – is of paramount importance during your higher education. As the ACLU points out in its excellent article on this issue “Hate Speech on Campus” :
How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most. Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible: When one of us is denied this right, all of us are denied. Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has fought for the free expression of all ideas, popular or unpopular. That’s the constitutional mandate.
Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech — not less — is the best revenge. This is particularly true at universities, whose mission is to facilitate learning through open debate and study, and to enlighten. Speech codes are not the way to go on campuses, where all views are entitled to be heard, explored, supported or refuted. Besides, when hate is out in the open, people can see the problem. Then they can organize effectively to counter bad attitudes, possibly change them, and forge solidarity against the forces of intolerance.
And this lack of understanding of the meaning and importance of the First Amendment did not just materialize on college campuses. Sony Pictures pulled the movie The Interview due to a single threat of violence. Last year, the US Air Force refused an airman’s re-enlistment after the officer crossed out the words “so help me God” in the oath papers he had to sign. The Air Force claimed they were basing their decision on the need to follow the forms approved by Congress, but that just begs the question of why Congress would require an oath to God in re-enlistment papers in the first place. Also last year, the States of New Jersey and Michigan had lawsuits filed against them for their rejection of vanity license plates that made statements – “8THEIST” (NJ) and “WAR SUX” (Michigan). Both were deemed “offensive” by the respective DMVs.
How can we expect anyone to believe that we value the First Amendment as much as France does when we don’t treat it with the respect and protection it deserves here at home. We have to do more than pay lip service to it by walking around with French flag pins or “Je Suis Charlie” T-shirts. We have to realize that the First Amendment may require that we be exposed to and hear ugly comments and negative beliefs but that banning the speech we dislike is never the answer. We fought a revolution over these issues once and French journalists appear to be ready to lay down their lives in support of their beliefs. We need to show that courage here as well.