Traverse City Record-Eagle

Other Views

April 24, 2012

Another View: How free is free speech?

Freedom of speech in America isn't really free, a fact becoming increasingly evident whenever a prominent figure makes a remark that offends a significant percentage of the population.

Sanction for unpopular speech isn't necessarily provided by the government (after all, we still have that pesky First Amendment to deal with), but it emerges through employers and advertisers finely attuned to the outrages of the masses.

The latest high-profile case involves Miami Marlins baseball manager Ozzie Guillen, who unwisely expressed his admiration for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. This might have been forgiven elsewhere, but this is Miami, where Castro is held in special contempt. Guillen apologized profusely and held onto his job (for now, at least), but his team suspended him for five games just so he got the message.

Which brings us to a fair question: Just where are we headed with public discourse in this country? Has the fear of offending, and the public flogging which so often follows, made the rest of us reluctant to speak our minds? Have we become our own thought police?

There is some cause for concern. Societies that become over-sensitized to unpopular speech run the danger of squelching robust give-and-take, which is what free societies should be about. While it is acceptable to take offense — often necessary — at outrageous commentary, we seem to be growing unsure where the line should be drawn. We clam up, worried that opinions that we think are within the mainstream are no longer tolerated.

Issues regarding free speech are even more confused in some European countries, and in Canada, where political speech itself has resulted in court cases. Granted, other nations are not obligated to see freedom of speech interests as the U.S. does, but we should pay attention nonetheless. We must beware the urge to let our freedoms fray in the effort to ensure that groups will not become aggrieved.

The point is, maybe we should relax a little. Do we really want to live in a country where every disagreeable remark demands some sort of official punishment?

The Free Press Mankato, Minn.

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