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Free speech has consequences

May 4, 2015

The sounds of gunfire sounded in Garland, TX during the early evening hours of May 3, signaling the beginning of a Charlie Hebdo-style attack in the city.

The attack reportedly shared many of the same circumstances, if not the severity of the outcome, with the Paris events of January 7, 2015.

In both cases a group was exercising their right of free speech by creating controversy centered around caricatures of the  Prophet Mohammed.

This time the subject matter is of less importance perhaps than the consequences of the resulting events.

Proponents of free speech assert the right of the people to say anything at any time, while others point out that some forms of speech are censored for the public good.

The FIrst Amendment right to free speech, taken from a constitutional viewpoint, actually only guarantees that people won’t be punished for verbally disagreeing with the government.

Given the circumstances existing at the time of the Constitution’s creation, it is easy to understand why that right was so important to the people in 1790, the year the last state finally ratified the document and made it the guidance for the laws of the land.

On the other hand, it doesn’t protect every form of speech. It doesn’t give people the right to publicly threaten to kill a public official or anyone else, nor does it permit anyone to yell fire in a crowded theater just to get a thrill from the resulting panic.

Completely free speech is regularly censored by government.  For instance it is against the law to practice what is called hate speech.  As noted, it is against the law to threaten the life of the President.  Verbal bullying can rise to the level of an assault. People have been arrested and charged if their speech results in the death of another, as happened in the case of a 12-year-old Florida girl.

That leads to the conclusion that the idea that any kind of speech is permitted by the U.S. Constitution is patently false.

Which leads back to Garland TX, and the claim of the organizer of the competition, one Pamela Geller, that they were simply exercising their constitutional right to free speech.

There is an old saying that when driving, exercising one’s right-of-way privileges is not wise if your path is blocked by a 70,000 pound semi hauling explosives. Legal maybe, but not smart.

If someone other than the perpetrators of the Garland attack had been killed, it could be fairly argued that the organizers knew or should have known that their event would result in a violent reaction ending in someone’s death or serious injury. It even exposes the city and the venue to possible legal problems

The event was known by law enforcement to have drawn the attention of at least one man now reported to have had alleged terrorist connections. That leaves one to wonder why the only security provided was an unarmed school security officer who is probably lucky he went home and not to the morgue.

Does that make their competition illegal?  No. The event is probably protected under several constitutional maxims, not just free speech.

Does it make it smart? That’s questionable. Surely, with the recent  history in Paris as a frame of reference, the organizers knew or should have known that there was a potential for violence as a result of their actions.

If you actually believe that any type of speech with an even remotely political overtone is protected, you are certainly entitled to your views. You are not entitled to put the lives of others at risk without their consent.  If the young man who won the top prize in the competition had been killed in the attack, he would have made a great martyr, but his parents would still be burying him.

Absolute freedom always carries with it the potential for unpleasant consequences. The question then becomes, are we all prepared to live with those consequences?

From → op-ed

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