April 10, 2003

By Michael Strickland

Freedom of Speech

I have always been proud to be an American. The ideals on which our country was founded reflect universal rights that all people on this earth should enjoy. The nuts and bolts of our democratic system, brilliantly codified in our Constitution, ensure the preservation of these rights. Chief amongst these rights is the freedom of speech. It is one of our rights that we exercise most frequently, and are most vocal in defending (thereby simultaneously exercising and defending it).

Yesterday, Iraqi residents of Baghdad were given their first opportunity to freely speak in more than 30 years—an opportunity they wasted no time in seizing, choosing to speak with both their voices and their footwear. Ironically, on the same day of this great emancipation, one news story showed how we Americans sometimes forget the meaning of freedom of speech.

In Carpinteria, California (a suburb of Santa Barbara), a group of patriotic Americans took it upon themselves to tie yellow ribbons on trees around town to express their support of U.S. troops overseas. One passerby took exception to this freedom of expression and got into a heated exchange about the war in Iraq with those decorating the trees. Apparently not satisfied with the outcome of the discussion, this person returned on in-line skates, scissors in hand, and snipped each ribbon as she skated down the street.

Though this story is insignificant in the context of yesterday's events, it is illustrative of the hypocrisy that often accompanies the exercise of free speech when hotly contested issues are involved. When some individuals dislike the opinions expressed by others, they denounce such opinions as "wrong" and attempt to squelch them. As Americans, these ribbon-hangers in Carpinteria had every right to express themselves as they did (notwithstanding the mostly irrelevant issue of whether or not a city permit was required to decorate city property, an angle that at least one radio station felt worthy of mention). Similarly, the skating protestor had every right to express her opinion by objecting to the sentiment embodied by the yellow ribbons. But to infringe on or obstruct someone else's freedom of expression because you disagree with them is simply un-American. Yet it is all too common.

When debate fails, too many people resort to denunciations. I remember the controversy that erupted a couple of years ago when conservative commentator David Horowitz was invited to speak at UCLA. Naturally, the event drew many protestors who opposed his points of view. But the protestors crossed the line of free speech when they caused such a disruption that Horowitz was all but drowned out. Rather than voice their own opinions and respect his, they did whatever they could to prevent him from speaking. So much for the freedom of speech that liberals purport to hold so sacred.

As I've commented before in this column, dissent makes our country stronger, and is one of the ideals upon which our democratic system was based (and which will hopefully be a hallmark of the new government in Baghdad as well). But when we disrespect opinions we disagree with to the point of suppressing their expression, we are no better than the likes of Saddam Hussein. Freedom of expression falls before the tyranny of the righteous, and we all lose.


Development note: I've noticed that this site doesn't look like it should in Netscape Navigator. Rather than waste time jury-rigging it to look right in a soon-to-be-obsolete browser, I'll just add the cliché "This site best viewed with Internet Explorer."
Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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4/9: Why We're Fighting
4/8: Eucalyptus Memories
4/7: Sleep
4/6: Writing, Just Not Here
4/5: Sci-Files Trivia
4/4: Sobering Up
4/3: Great White Hope
4/2: Entropy
4/1: Peace on Earth
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