Sticks and Stones: Why Are We Gagging Freedom of Speech?

Skeleton cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

America is, without realizing it, very quietly and slowly tightening the screws on freedom of speech in our society. It is disturbing to me.

We used to defend our right to say most anything, unless it was crying fire in a crowded theater. You’d be judged by what you did, not what you said. And the little saying went sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” is the First Amendment to the Constitution, adopted December 15, 1791.

Here’s one story along those lines. People used to tell this story proudly. The Ku Klux Klan made an application to hold a parade through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina. This was in the 1950s. The mayor called a meeting of the council. Should they give the KKK a permit? A councilmember said they should ask the police chief, since he would be involved if they gave one.

The chief arrived. He was an African-American who had risen up through the ranks, someone who the whole city loved. And they asked him what he thought.

“Give them the permit,” he said, “and I’ll march at the front to make sure no harm comes to them.”

And he did.

Well, that is not the way things would play out today. At this point, after 20 years of political correctness and 10 years of social media and surveillance hammering at our brains, freedom of speech is on its way out. It’s being replaced by the insistence in a strict adherence to correct and proper discourse. Deviation from it leads to punishment. Continuation of it leads to ruination.

If I were to say that a new religion has come to town and this strict interpretation of freedom of speech were its new laws, you would probably say this could not be going on in America. But it is.

I will give you lots and lots of examples of it. How about Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly for starters? Brian Williams’ sin is 10 years old, O’Reilly’s is 30. Now let’s add Hillary Clinton for not separating her email and then deleting 35,000 personal emails. She must be hiding something. Locally, let’s look at Linda Kabot, a not-long-ago Town Supervisor. She was pulled over by the local cops and charged with DWI in 2011. She was acquitted. But the encounter was caught on video and it ruined her political career. How about Robert Durst? He forgot his microphone was still on during an interview and going to the men’s room he was caught mumbling to himself that yes, I killed them all.

Stuff’s coming up every day. Last week the owners of the Dolce & Gabbana fashion label in Italy, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce, were interviewed by the Italian magazine Panorama about the importance of family, and the conversation turned to in vitro fertilization.

“I call children of chemicals, synthetic children. Rented uterus, semen chosen from a catalog,” said Dolce.

“The family is not a fad,” Gabbana said. “In it there is a supernatural sense of belonging.”

Both men enjoy large, warm, Italian extended families.

At this point, there is some question whether the label will survive. What was said went viral. Singer Elton John, who with his husband, David Furnish, is raising two small IVF children, called for a boycott of the company. Among those joining in are Courtney Love, Ricky Martin, Martina Navratilova and Victoria Beckman. It was suggested that everybody burn clothes from Dolce & Gabbana. People probably have.

I’ve talked to some friends about this. One remembered a party he went to at a big corporation some years ago where the men dressed up as CEOs, and the women dressed up as “Corporate Hoes.” It rhymes. He hopes nobody finds out. Another told of a way to get somebody fired, or, after an interview, not hired. Set up a fake Facebook account and pretend to be that person. Write and post terrible things. Send those things to the prospective employers.

Another friend told of a friend’s mother who posted a video of her son at Little League at the age of 6 sliding into third and, in the process, soiling himself. Isn’t that cute? The subject of it, now grown, would have liked her not to have done that. But she did. This grown-up will never be able to run for public office.

The general consensus is that yes, it’s still possible to have a secret life or to talk a certain way in the privacy of your own home, but be aware the world is now transparent. And yes, the priests will look through your garbage, digital and otherwise. And if they find something, it doesn’t have to be from just yesterday. It could be from thirty years ago.

The fear of free speech at Universities was the subject of an article in The New York Times on March 21. The headline was “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas.”

Times reporter Judith Shulevitz told of what happened at Brown University when the administration arranged for a debate between two women who have different points of view about what to do about date rape on campus. One woman was a libertarian. The other was a feminist.

A group on campus called the Sexual Assault Task Force went to the president of the University to protest this debate. They wanted this debate not to take place. The administration decided that during the time of the debate, there would be, in another building, a talk providing research and facts about the role of culture in sexual assaults. And the administration would also provide, during the time of the debate, a “safe space” in another room on campus where those who might be traumatized by going to the debate could go to get help. The help consisted of trauma experts, peaceful music, crayons, pillows, blankets, soap bubbles, Play-Doh, cookies and a video of frolicking puppies.

At Columbia University, the Times notes, a student group called Everyone Allied Against Homophobia went around to the dorms and passed out leaflets under the doors of every room with instructions to tape it to the windows inside, facing out. The leaflet read “I want this space to be a safer space.” In response, one student, seeing this, published a flier in the Columbia Daily Spectator saying his room was a dangerous space and that was just fine.

The Times story goes on to report that up at Smith College, members of the student body caused the president of the school to apologize after a free-speech advocate on an alumni panel used the N-word while discussing whether that word should be allowed to be used or not during classroom lessons. The woman, Wendy Kaminer, gave examples from great American literature about that word, one of which was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Amazingly, the school’s president, Kathleen McCartney, apologized to those who might have been hurt by what Kaminer said.

Kaminer told The New York Times that she was amazed that people who were offended could not distinguish between racism and having discussions about racism.

The Student Government Association wrote a letter responding to the controversy, saying “if Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.”

New trends often start in universities. Here’s one. Young people today are becoming frightened of being in the same room with an idea they do not agree with.

The reason is the consequences. What’s in your closet?

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