Column on Free Speech is a Basic Human Right

Free Speech is a Basic Human Right

Tibor R. Machan

The New York Times reported recently that “John Galliano, the talented and troubled designer who was fired by the fashion house Christian Dior for making anti-Semitic remarks in a drunken rant at a bar, will be put on trial for the offenses, the Paris prosecutors office said Wednesday.” This is of interest to all those who realize that the right to freedom of speech isn’t merely some odd American idea, as some multiculturalists might maintain, but a basic individual human right. It is a basic right that is always under assault from dictators and also, sadly, from earnest but misguided champions of various causes.

For example, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said a while back, in a meeting with intellectuals and writers at [a] book fair’s opening: “There are freedoms, but they can’t contradict our traditions … We must guarantee that freedom of expression agrees with our values.” [From the Christian Science Monitor] Unfortunately such sentiments aren’t confined to dictators but are embraced by many who feel strongly about their values in a country, such as the United States of America, that provides the right to freedom of speech with strong legal protection.

Those who believe that American soldiers who fell in wars fighting for the country’s various objectives need to be honored have found the recent ruling of the U. S. Supreme Court upholding the rights of protesters near the funerals of such soldiers quite outrageous. But instead of directing their outrage at the perverse views of the protesters, they have targeted the Supreme Court for its correct interpretation of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution (which aims to secure everyone’s right to freedom of speech).

It is in fact baffling that the the champions of the fallen soldiers would be so upset about the ruling protecting freedom of speech when what the soldiers supposedly fought and died for is the political system that includes as one of its central ideas that everyone has that right and may exercise it even if such exercise displeases or offends many people. The complaint with the ruling betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the principles of the American system as laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

Having the right to speak freely has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of what is being said. Indeed, if speech has obvious merits, it hardly needs protection. Only when it prompts some people–who fail to grasp what it is to have such a right–to move to legally silence those whose views they find objectionable does the protection of the right achieve its central objective.

It is interesting to compare how American constitutional law deals with seriously objectionable speech and demonstration with how French law does. It seems that Mr. Galliano’s human right to hold whatever despicable views he choose to hold, just like the views of those protesters who agitate at funerals of American soldiers–making the ridiculous claim that the deaths are God’s punishment for the support American law gives to gays–are going to be ignored by French prosecutors. Surely if the maniacs here in America have rights–and I do believe they do (while I hold my nose)–so does Mr. Galliano.

Furthermore, if the French government doesn’t recognize Mr. Galliano’s right to hold his opinions and express them, it may be time for The New York Times itself to criticize France’s legal system, as it often criticizes the legal systems and practices of other countries–e.g., the former South Africa, Chile when it was ruled by General Pinochet, and others. It shows a lack of integrity when editorial writers at The Times stand up only for some people’s basic rights instead of for everyone’s.

But then, of course, The Times and others who share its political philosophy have been doing this for ages: loudly protesting rights violations of some citizens and ignoring such violations when others are the targets (such as those citizens whom the Obama Administration is attempting to compel to purchase health insurance and thus whose right to liberty is being attacked).

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One Response to Column on Free Speech is a Basic Human Right

  1. Austin says:’s-new-first-amendment-decision-unrelated-to-the-first-amendment/

    Supreme Court’s New First Amendment Decision Unrelated to the First Amendment by Robert G. Natelson

    “The text of the Free Speech Clause reads, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” That is, the Amendment restricts actions of Congress. Unlike other parts of the Bill of Rights, it applies only to the federal legislature, not to other branches of government. It does not affect the common law, a system of case-by-case precedent built up by judges and juries over the years—a system expressly recognized as legitimate in other parts of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

    Moreover, the First Amendment says absolutely nothing about the states—and, in fact, during the 19th century the Court correctly held that the federal Bill of Rights controls only the federal government. (States are bound by their own constitutions’ bills of rights.) True, some scholars argue that the later-adopted Fourteenth Amendment applied the First Amendment to the states, although others argue the contrary. But the Supreme Court has never persuasively explained why it thinks the Fourteenth Amendment imposed the First on the states. And even it did, that would bind only their legislatures, the state analogues of “Congress.” It would not affect the common law.

    There’s more: Although you would never know it to read Supreme Court First Amendment decisions, the Founders actually meant something by the phrases “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press.” Those phrases had specific content. But what is important here is that they did not prevent civil lawsuits by innocents for harm inflicted by irresponsible people. Among those saying so during the debates over whether to ratify the Constitution was James Wilson, one of the greatest of the Founders. (Wilson was a Framer, a leading Ratifier, and a distinguished lawyer whom George Washington later appointed to the Supreme Court.)

    And as if that were not enough, during those debates the document’s supporters represented that tort and contact cases generally remained outside the federal sphere and were reserved exclusively to the states.

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