“Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”—Neil Gaiman.
Folks may not always quote it just exactly right or know that it is Voltaire they are quoting, but most everyone has heard it and repeated it: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
While there is some scholarly debate on the subject, that French writer and philosopher wrote that in the mid-1700s, years before there was even any notion of a United States of America, but in their collective wisdom, the Founding Fathers enshrined its spirit in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
It is fundamental to one’s calling of himself an American—“Freedom of Speech.” And it does not exist to protect popular speech or happy speech or speech that all of us could agree upon. There would be no need for any constitutional protection of that.
It exists to protect unpopular speech, speech which can and does make us mad. And within all the sound and fury echoing across this land today, it strikes me that we all could use a reminder of that.
This column will not be popular in a lot of circles. I will probably get calls and notes expressing outrage and no doubt any number of insults, which seems to be a new pastime within the culture of crumbling civility in which we find ourselves. But then, that’s the point, isn’t it?
Let’s take flag burning, first.
Allow me to be clear: The very thought of somebody burning, stomping upon, spitting upon or in any other way defiling the American flag makes me furious. I loathe any such disrespect vested upon a symbol for which so many brave Americans have fought and died.
However, on June 21, 1989, in a case styled Texas v. Johnson, the United States Supreme Court ruled that no matter how heinous, burning the United States flag was an expression of free speech and hence, protected under the First Amendment.
In so doing, the nation’s high court struck down respective statutes against the practice which were being enforced in 48 of the 50 states.
Now, you may not like that ruling and I don’t like that ruling (though I am forced to agree that it was the correct one), but once the Supreme Court handed it down, it became the law of the land and despite the current onslaught against the sacred principle, the United States remains governed by the rule of law.
On now to the issue of the day—professional football players protesting what they perceive to be unjust policing of the black community by kneeling, when the National Anthem is played prior to their taking the field on game days.
And people—lots and lots of people don’t like that, again because of the disrespect they think it represents to another sacred American symbol. This has gotten folks hot and bothered more than anything else in quite a long time and the Internet is chock-full of vitriol at the players, the team owners who don’t fire those players (some have threatened to) and anybody else who is not as fighting mad at the folks ranting and raving.
And you know what? I can’t much say I like the act, either, primarily because I think that there are far better ways to protest what is a genuine and at least seemingly growing problem in contemporary society.
But it is clearly protected free speech, and as such, the players have the right to do it. If flag burning is protected free speech, then how in the world can anybody argue that kneeling while “The Star Spangled Banner” is being played or (often awfully) sung is not?
Now, some amateur legal eagles have argued that the 1st Amendment free speech protections are against the government, and not, say, team owners who should fire the players (fire all the good ones and see how happy the team’s fans are) and they had a point.
Had, that is, until the president of the United States in a speech in Alabama Friday (September 22) said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of those NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a b——- off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.’” Then he tweeted more of the same all day the following Saturday and Sunday.
Note to President Trump: You, sir, are the government, and now the government is openly advocating to abridge free speech.
And just as too many American men and women have died fighting for the American Flag and the National Anthem for me to be comfortable with disrespecting either, those same sacrifices were made and that same blood was spilled in protection of the equally sacred rights enabling lesser Americans to do so.
We should remember that.
And somebody needs to teach the president that.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.