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First Amendment, Free Speech, and Political Correctness

The First Amendment guarantees all Americans the right of free speech.  Unfortunately, over time this right has become more of an idealistic theory than a practical reality.  It is not that the federal and state governments are enacting laws specifically prohibiting free speech; although there have been laws passed in recent years—for example hate speech laws—that have had that effect. Rather, it is that America has become a nation in which the socio-political narrative is shaped by political correctness and social intimidation.  This situation raises an interesting Constitutional question: Do Americans actually have a right if that right is only a theoretical ideal rather than a practical reality?

The First Amendment was written, in part, because the framers knew that free speech in a diverse society would sometimes mean offensive and even hateful speech.  After all, speech that does not offend requires no protection. Americans are still legally empowered to say what they think—unless, of course, what they say is deemed hate speech—but woe to those whose thoughts and opinions run afoul of what is currently considered politically correct by those who control the socio-political narrative in America.  Making statements these guardians of the narrative consider offensive may not land an individual in jail, but it will subject that individual to unrelenting criticism, browbeating, and public scorn ladled on by the principle enforcer of political correctness: the mainstream media.

For those who hold dear the right of dissent, free speech is sacred.  But in recent years, the free speech of dissenters has been under attack, as have those who exercise their right of free speech to, for example, criticize President Obama’s policies, challenge abortion, speak out against same-sex marriage, question Affirmative Action, or support a traditional interpretation of the Second Amendment.  Dissenters who dare do any of these things risk being crushed by the enforcers of political correctness.  Hold this thought, I will come back to it.  But first some background.

I had a political science professor in college who extolled the virtues of free speech unceasingly while at the same time intimidating his students so badly they were afraid to exercise it.  This was in the 1960s and college campuses were rife with student protests against the Viet Nam War, dormitory rules, grading of student work, the draft, anti-drug laws, and the establishment in general.  This professor had held views to the left of center for years, but in the past had been reluctant to give full voice to his views.  In retrospect he may have been afraid that the more conservative members of the political science faculty might deny him tenure if his real views became known.  But things had changed on college campuses by 1968.  The views of the left were in the ascension.

As a result, this professor spent most of the time in every class preaching the virtues of socialism while attacking the supposed shortcomings of free markets and other values that fell to the right of center on the political spectrum.  To him, conservatives were (in his words) “war-mongering capitalists” eager to benefit financially from the blood of poor people who could not escape the draft.   The professor encouraged students to challenge his assertions, but woe to those who did.  Even voicing the slightest disagreement with this bombastic tyrant would rain wrath down on the head of the poor dissenter, not to mention the effect it would have on his or her grade.  We soon learned that this professor’s love affair with free speech was one-sided.  Free speech was his prerogative not ours.

A similar situation has emerged in America where those who agree with the current socio-political narrative as enforced by the mainstream media, enjoy the right of free speech, while those whose views do not comport with politically-correct orthodoxy are belittled, scorned, and even intimidated.

My political science professor in college stifled our free speech because he feared the validity of our dissent.  The same can now be said about those who control the socio-political narrative in America.  The mainstream media is not the only enforcer of the politically correct narrative that currently prevails in America.  The government has also become an enforcer of the narrative—precisely what the First Amendment was written to guard against. In recent years, the federal government has moved systematically to deny Americans the free speech they are guaranteed in the First Amendment, the very cornerstone of our Constitution.

The government’s preferred method is no different than that of my political science professor: blatant intimidation.  If this assertion sounds a little over the top, consider what the government has done just during the Obama administration to stifle dissenters their right of free speech:

  • Subpoenaed the emails and telephone records of journalists who have spoken out against President Obama’s policies or who have even questioned these policies.
  • Used the National Security Agency to spy on the telephone conversations of American citizens.
  • Used the IRS to intimidate conservative and Christian non-profit organizations.

Most Americans have heard of these types of government intimidation, but it is lesser known instances of government bullying that are the most frightening.  For example, a citizen in Norfolk, Nebraska applied for permission to enter a float in a local Fourth of July parade.  His float consisted of an outhouse with a sign that read “Obama Presidential Library.”  Perhaps without knowing it, this man was honoring a long tradition of political dissent.  This type of thing was common from the outset in America.  George Washington, the prickly John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson had to put up with this type of thing on a regular basis.  But apparently the government does not think the current president should have to.  The U.S. Department of Justice, led at the time by Eric Holder, sent a team of investigators to Norfolk to determine if the float in question was racist.

Apparently the man who designed the float did not intend to make a racist statement, but that is hardly the point is it?  It does not matter if the man was making a racist statement.  Protecting unpopular speech is the very purpose of the First Amendment.  The First Amendment was not written to protect speech that offends no one.  Quite the contrary.  Speech that is inoffensive requires not protection.  Further, people who are elected to representative offices—people such as the president of the United States—are only getting what they signed on for when citizens exercise their free speech to criticize them.  This is precisely why John Adams almost brought down his own presidency by attempting to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts.  The thin-skinned second president did not like to be criticized and wanted to be able to punish those who opposed his views.

One of the favorite tactics of those who want to stifle free speech that is critical of President Obama is to label dissenters “racists.”  Writing for The Washington Times of July 21, 2014, Judge Andrew P. Napolitano had this to say about the “racism tactic” of Obama supporters: Claiming that if Obama were fully white his critics would be silent is “highly inflammatory, grossly misleading, patently without evidential support and, yet again, chilling.  Tagging someone as a racist is the political equivalent of applying paint that won’t come off.”

People who are afraid to exercise their right of free speech have no right of free speech.  If government intimidation and name calling by the mainstream media can prevent dissenters from speaking our freely and openly, the First Amendment loses its meaning and its power.  When this happens, the cornerstone of representative government—what Lincoln called government of the people, by the people, and for the people—ceases to exist.

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David L. Goetsch

Dr. Goetsch is a retired college Vice-President and professor of business and political science, a business consultant, and a widely-recognized public speaker. He is the author of more than 70 books on leadership, management, business, and political commentary.

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