Defending Unpopular Speech – sitting out the National Anthem

When I was young my father explained freedom of speech by passing on this piece of time-tested wisdom:

I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

He was talking about individual action and societal action. He’d fought a war to keep dictators from taking over most of the world and wasn’t about to let the liberties preserved fade from the public treasury.

My father served in China keeping the Flying Tigers in the air. (Wikimedia)

My father served in China keeping the Flying Tigers in the air. (Wikimedia)

Flag burning in a 2008 protest (Wikimedia)

Flag burning in a 2008 protest
(Wikimedia)

Some people today don’t agree with my dad.

Whether it’s the occasional repeated attempts to outlaw flag burning or the recent calls to criminalize failing to stand for the National Anthem, unpopular speech is not defended. In fact, some people will tell you such speech is indefensible.

It’s not. Not only is such speech defensible but its defense is vital to keeping American values intact. Values such as:

  • Freedom to think and say what you want.
  • Freedom to gather together with people who share your beliefs.
  • Freedom to write your ideas down and pass them along to others.
  • Freedom to follow a religion no matter how unpopular it is.
  • And freedom to criticize the government and tell it how to make things better.

Are these really American values? The people who wrote, debated and ratified the First Amendment to the United States Constitution thought so.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (Wikipedia.)

Handwritten text of the First Amendment (Wikimedia)

Handwritten text of the First Amendment, excerpted from the Bill of Rights in the National Archive.  (Wikimedia)

So for those misguided people who think preserving American values requires making it illegal to say things they don’t like, think again: preserving the values this country was built on requires defending the right of others to say such things. We are to do it as individuals and collectively as a society.

And for those same misguided people: I disagree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it no matter how wrong you are.

That’s what we do in this country.

defending-speech

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[This is not a call to stifle debate and discussion. We can criticize the speech of others all we like. That’s also part of our liberty under the First Amendment. But we don’t criminalize it.]

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18 Responses to Defending Unpopular Speech – sitting out the National Anthem

  1. “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

    I will always associate this quote with the John Mortimer’s character, Rumpole of the Bailey 🙂

  2. Pastor Bob says:

    I believe these were the words of Thomas Jefferson,

    Government may not take action, but private employers have taken action for things said (and posted online). Friendships have been severed over words and statements.

    Integrity (when had and held) is a wonderful thing. I really does help define us,

  3. Interesting. We don’t have freedom of speech to this degree in the UK. We have laws protecting society from hate speech and encitement to violence. It’s a very fine line to tread. I applaud those who do, because I think they do an exceptional job most of the time.

  4. DragonLady says:

    I’ve heard people talk about how not standing for the national anthem (or putting hand over heart) is disrespectful to veterans. And I’m over here like, “I’m not disrespected.” Because this vet didn’t serve to protect a song or some fabric (I understand they are symbols), I served to protect people and their liberty. And that includes their liberty to peacefully protest including sitting for the national anthem.

  5. In the 1940’s the Supreme Court upheld the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to not salute the flag, an act they consider idolatry, since they see the flag as a graven image.

  6. Tuija says:

    In Finland, you can be fined for destroying/defacing the Finnish flag publicly or for treating it disrespectfully. I guess the idea is that there are other, better ways to express your point than by flag burning – for example, by using words? 🙂
    However, even though it is customary to stand up for the national anthem, I don’t think anyone would think of making a law against failing to stand up. (What would you do with the people who are too ill, frail, etc. to stand up? Would they have to carry some kind of a doctor’s statement to give them the right to sit down?)

    Free speech and free press are important values here, too.
    And yet, as Sandyfaithking also commented, we also need to figure out when the free speech crosses the line and becomes hate speech, encitement to violence, slander etc. Not always easy to draw the line.

    Interestingly, there is also a law against blasphemy in Finland. If someone blasphemes what a church or a religious group considers holy, doing it publicly and with the intent to insult/mock, they can be fined for it or given max 6 months prison sentence, for “breaking religious peace.” (I’m sorry, couldn’t find an official translation and I find it hard to translate the terms accurately. I hope I’m giving a fair idea of what it’s about.) I must say that there have never been many charges based on this law, as far as I know. These days, I think it just comes up combined with other charges of slander, hate speech against a specific people group, etc.

  7. These are good points, Tim. I appreciate your distinction between defending (or even respecting) what someone says and defending their right to say it. Not all opinions are equally valid, but freedom to express them is important.

  8. ZechZav says:

    I think these values and it is a good foundation for democracy. As Christians we can enjoy this freedom within the greater commandment to love God and our neighbours. Just because I have the right to say something does not mean that I should say it – particularly if the words are unkind, unloving, untrue or unjust. The freedom to criticise and protest is very valuable. As someone who is both gay and Christian, I don’t agree with the traditional position on homosexuality. But I support the freedom of other Christians to preach and teach that view according to their own conviction. Also within the framework of the two greatest commandments, freedom of speech would not be extended to things which violate that – for example slander and incitement to violence. It’s an interesting subject.

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