On Freedom of Speech: What it does and does not mean.

As Americans we have freedom of speech, which is a glorious thing. I’ve never been a fan of censorship, even when I find something distasteful or hateful. And I would never ask that something I find morally repugnant be banned on private proConstitution_of_the_United_States,_page_1perty, even if it deeply offends me.

Which is why the misreading of my piece on the Confederate flag is baffling to me. Because nowhere in my piece did I suggest that the Confederate flag be banned on private property, or that the man flying it should not be legally allowed to do so. (I would like to see it removed from public property, but that’s a different story.) I think if someone wants to fly the Confederate flag, that is indeed their first amendment right. I find it detestable, but I would not take that right away.

But here’s where it works both ways: someone flying the flag does indeed have the right to fly it, but all of us who see it also have the right to voice our own opinions about it.

To use another example, you are free to walk to the center of town and shout as many racist, sexist, and homophobic words as you would like. It is reprehensible and terrible, but that’s your right.

But in response, the people who hear you can say they do not agree. And they can also make choices based on your words. They might decide they no longer want to be your friend. They might say they will never again shop at your business. And, yes, they might call you a racist, sexist, and homophobe.

And they will be well within their rights to do so.

So when someone sees someone else flying a Confederate flag, they are free to infer what they want from your speech. For many people, particularly those whose ancestors were enslaved in the antebellum South, they are going to infer that you care nothing about racial inequality. And they are free to then decide how much they want to have to do with you.

That’s because freedom of speech does not free you from the consequences of that speech. 

For instance, I used my freedom of speech when I wrote my blog, saying the things I would say had I the opportunity to talk to the owner of that truck. I said that, to me, those symbols conveyed racist intent. That is not judgement. That is saying “those symbols are painful to many, and I wish you’d reconsider them”. It’s also saying that racism and hatred have for too long been allowed to flourish under the protection of that flag. And regardless of whether or not you agree with me, I have as much right to say that as he does to fly that flag.

The consequences of that speech have come in the form of emails, comments, and tweets calling me every racist, sexist, and homophobic slur I have ever heard. (Update, I have now received anti-Semitic slurs as well.) And the people saying those things have that right. I also have the right to delete them from my private blog (but not from public spaces) because I refuse to allow that speech in my digital home. Being called those names is not a negative consequence to me. In fact, the more people have to resort to slurs to prove their point, the more I know my initial impressions of that flag were correct. Because as it turns out it’s kind of hard to argue that your stance is not about hate when you are spewing hate. 

What I find interesting is that with one exception, no one signed their actual name to those slurs. I think that is because people do understand that free speech does have consequences. If you post hate speech online, it’s out there for every potential employer, date, or friend to see forever. Most people take the necessary precautions and do not sign their name.

The one person who did sign his name responded to my message back. We dialogued and, while we do not agree about the flag, he apologized. For others who sent slurs without their names, but with their emails, I have emailed back. I’ve invited each one to lunch so we can talk face-to-face. Sadly, none has yet taken me up on my offer. I wish they would. I’d like to hear why they said what they said.

Which leads me to this: If you really believe in freedom of speech, and if you really truly believe in what you are saying, why are you not willing to sign your real name? It always interests me that the comments that are most concerned about free speech come from people who lack the courage of their convictions and hide behind their keyboards. It seems pretty ironic to me.

So, I’ll keep writing. Using my real name. And I’ll keep talking about the things in this world that cause pain. And I’ll keep telling the truth I know, the one that is grounded in my faith. You, of course, are free to disagree. But don’t argue your first amendment rights are being denied. Because they aren’t. You are just being asked to consider the consequences of your words and actions. You can choose to do nothing in response, but the choice is always yours. The response to your actions, however, belongs to everyone.

12 thoughts on “On Freedom of Speech: What it does and does not mean.

  1. I think that you are wonderful! I appreciate how eloquently you wrote about a very disturbing subject and never resorted to the cowards of hate. You are an inspiration to many!

  2. Reverend.
    I read your letter to the man flying the flags on his truck and I can tell you this, I served my country so that ALL people white,black, woman, child anyone of any color race or creed would have the ability to express themselves as they say fit. This would include you! So please remember you may not agree with the flag statement (I surely don’t) but once he gives into your version of right and wrong, history or not we all lose a fundamental right. I don’t hate others as in people I am color blind (or gender). Everyone is Marine green to me and I am proud to have protected everyone who could not protect themselves or even make mistakes because at least we agree that expression is worth the cost. Yes I would love to have lunch with you and I did use my real name. If you are ever in Kansas City I would buy your lunch in a minute because I gave something to everyone once to protect them. I am too old to do that again but I would listen to your version of history right or wrong because that’s just the kind of guy I am.
    Respectfully Submitted
    Steve Dennis

    • Steve, first thank you for your service. And I’m not asking him to “give in” to my perspective; just consider it. And just as he has the right to fly the flag, I have the right to say that it is offensive. He can certainly keep flying it; and I can keep speaking too. Btw, I’m a Dennis on my mom’s side.

      • Reverend
        Again when you say you have the right to tell him his flag is offensive, and that is your “right” it really isn’t.
        You are judging his actions and assume they are racist. You have no proof of that! Assuming is a terrible idea as it shows a narrow minded person with intentions of putting their views above others. A flag is just a flag and it stands for a lot of different things including a dark time on our past. If you associate the flag with the terrible things that happened then I feel sorry for you. The cowards that hid behind their sensibility and enslav d others (this includes northerners remember) deserve to be condemned but if it’s a flag that caused this suffering you must include our own because slavery in this country was in ALL states just not the south. The reality is the civil war was fought over centralizing power to the union and slavery was a very small part of what happened.
        I am very happy to find out we might be related. I would be proud to call you a relation, it may not seem this way but I really do respect those that speak their mind and are willing to risk a part of themselves to speak it. Thru fear we have no hope, thru hope we have no fear. I hope one day we learn to accept one another as we are and war is just a fleeting memory only to be remembered in history as what not to do. Until that day of acceptance I will do my best to spread hope and not fear.
        Respectfully submitted
        Steve Dennis

        • Steve, you are right, I do judge that flag as racist. Because I truly believe that it is, just as I believe Nazi insignia is anti-Semitic. As I said in the piece, I believe flying that flag is a racist act. I am free to both see it that way and say so.

  3. There have been some great tragedies that have happen over many years, but was it was done by a select few, and not all people in general. The confederate flag is a big part of southern heritage. Can we really take down or get rid of it. Taking it down doesn’t make it out of site out of mind. The original sentiment was not slavery . But some have made it that. Once we lose something like the confederate flag first, it will pave the way for other rights and liberties to be taken. Hatred is passed down thru the generations, if children are taught love of everyone and everything after a while the world will be a better place without all of these hate crimes.

    • My apologies, but I think you may have missed the point. I provided a link to an article that provides commentary on totalitarianism that is taking away free speech in general. I wasn’t opining about you or your opinions… Just adding to what I assumed was an intellectual conversation on speech. Perhaps I was wrong. Again my apologies.

  4. I have a former friend arguing with me about someone else’s post on Facebook. It’s a meme that basically says “since we banned the confederate flag because of the last shooting, can we now ban the display of anything representing Islam because of this shooting? It’s only fair”. He says we shouldn’t have banned the flag, I’m assuming from the outside of a public/state building, because it takes away our freedom. But I think comparing historical flags & religion is like comparing apples & oranges. I suggested the same meme be used with Christianity, & that didn’t go over so well. Again he said I didn’t understand the “irony” of the meme, but I still think it’s comparing two different things. Do they both represent our freedoms equally?

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