I support the First Amendment, but…

If you ever hear those words, get ready to listen to someone demonstrate that they don’t understand what the First Amendment is really about.

Only 62 percent of Americans could name the freedom of speech as one of the freedoms listed in the First Amendment, according to a 2011 poll by the First Amendment Center. A minority, 18 percent of those polled, said the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. Since 1997, a shift on an amendment to ban flag burning has occurred – the 2011 poll showed that only 39 percent think the constitution should be amended to ban flag burning.

Flag burning is protected speech under current law. In Texas v. Johnson (1989), the Supreme Court case on that issue, I think Justice WIlliam Joseph Brennan, Jr., said it best:

[The] principal function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute; it may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.

A neo-Nazi group held a rally on the National Mall in April 2008. Other people turned out to protest their presence and the police ended up having to protect the National Socialist Movement, swastikas and all.

While the neo-Nazis railed against immigrants, one clever fellow blasted MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech. These two final paragraphs of that Washington Post story, which I read in my sophomore year of high school, have stuck with me:

Police officers in riot gear tried to keep stony faces as they listened to the dueling speeches. A teenager asked an African American police officer in riot gear how she felt about protecting the marchers.

“Everyone has the right to free speech,” she replied politely. “It’s in the Constitution.”

It’s hearing or reading about beautiful, awful, wonderful and horrible moments like that when I fall even more in love with this country I was born in.

Where else does this happen? Few European countries have such pro-active free speech protections.

Not only are there no laws “abridging the freedom of speech” but the government sometimes goes out of its way to protect those exercising their rights. Granted, that’s not always the case – the neo-Nazi group had to get a permit to hold their rally. If you don’t have a permit… well. Zuccotti Park?

The First Amendment protects all kinds of speech that people find offensive or hateful or threatening or just plain dumb. Hate speech? Protected. The Westboro Baptist Church holding awful signs at the funerals of American soldiers? Oh, yeah – they won that court battle. Completely illogical, misinformed, biased chain e-mails, blog posts, comments or tweets? Most definitely protected!

There’s the speech which makes you worry for the future of humanity and there’s speech which demonstrates the vigorous, open political debate fostered by our First Amendment – sometimes they even overlap. Both can be found in great quantities on the Internet.

The idea is that, when everyone is free to express their opinion without fear of retaliation by an oppressive government, the best ideas will win out. Sure, there’ll always be the neo-Nazis on the fringe, but they are the fringe.

You can criticize the president for being too far to the left or the right or the middle – and the only retaliation you’ll get is from other people who disagree with you. No government agency is going to delete your tweet, blog post or comment or shut the entire Internet down, track you through your IP address and arrest you.

You’re entitled to express yourself. Even if it offends others or disgusts them or makes them uncomfortable. You might get ostracized by polite society – but you don’t have to fear the government.

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