While most people still enjoy considerable freedom of expression, this right, once a near absolute, has become less defined and less dependable for those espousing controversial social, political or religious views. The decline of free speech has come not from any single blow but rather from thousands of paper cuts of well-intentioned exceptions designed to maintain social harmony.
Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; unless of course we’re talking about a white chocolate-paneled cake for a gay wedding or perpetual funding for abortion centers. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, unless that speech is used by pro-lifers or patriots, or Christians or Conservatives, or straight white men, or by wealthy donors who support a candidate the left hates.
Or of the press; unless the press invades safe spaces designated by mobs or writes about incorrect topics at incorrect times. And to petition the Government for a redress of grievances; unless they are members of pre-designated special interests groups, they should report to the IRS before doing so. That’s pretty much the state of the First Amendment today. Even in mainstream political debate, left-wing interest far outweigh our piddling concerns about the First Amendment
After all, free speech is blasphemous, right? Why else would some Western counties pass blasphemy laws that criminalize the “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” deemed “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion.” In case you’ve been asleep the last 10 years, that “any religion” is any religion that is not Christian. Some countries have gone so far as to arrest people who threaten strife by criticizing Islam or their leaders. As President, Obama even supported a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution for Islamic nations to “create an international standard” to restrict “some” anti-religious speech, especially where it concerned Islam.
Free speech can also be hateful. according to the left, especially if it’s a Christian adhering to Biblical doctrine. Didn’t those Christians force Britain to pass laws banning any “abusive or insulting words” that could stir up hatred against certain groups of people and Canada to pass laws outlawing writing, signs or visible representation that might “incite hatred against any identifiable group.” These laws ban speech, based not only on its content but, on the reaction of others.
Free speech is also discriminatory, right? Perhaps the most rapidly expanding limitation on speech is found in anti-discrimination laws. Many Western countries have extended such laws to public statements deemed insulting or derogatory to any group, race or gender. Several years ago, a French court found a fashion designer guilty of making discriminatory comments in a Paris bar when he got into a cursing match with a couple using sexist and anti-Semitic terms. A Canadian comedian was charged with violating the human rights of a lesbian couple after he got into a trash-talking session with a group of women during an open-mike night.
Let’s face it, free speech can be deceitful. In the U.S., where speech is given the most protection among Western countries, there has been a recent effort to carve out a potentially large category to which the First Amendment would not apply, arguing that the government has the power to outlaw any lie. President George Bush signed a law making it a crime to lie about receiving military honors. While SCOTA did strike the law down as unconstitutional, at least two left-wing judges, Breyer and Kagan, proposed that such laws should have less of a burden to be upheld as constitutional. The House responded with new legislation that would criminalize lies told with the intent to obtain any undefined “tangible benefit.”
The impact of government limits on speech has been magnified by even greater forms of private censorship. Some news organizations have stopped showing images of Muhammad even while having no misgivings about caricatures of other religious figures. The most extreme form of idiocy was supplied by Yale University Press which in 2009 published a book about the Danish cartoons titled “The Cartoons That Shook the World” but cut all of the cartoons out so as to not insult anyone.
Freedom of Speech, which laid the very foundation for Western civilization is increasingly viewed as a nuisance, if not a threat. Whether speech is deemed inflammatory or hateful or discriminatory or simply false, society is denying speech rights in the name of tolerance, enforcing mutual respect through categorical censorship.
The West seems to be falling out of love with free speech. Unable to divorce ourselves from this defining right, we take refuge instead in an awkward and forced silence.