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.

To the Guy Flying a Confederate Flag in Exeter, New Hampshire

I saw your truck parked in front of the Rite-Aid, right by the Dunkin Donuts. Two large Confederate flags were attached to the back of it, waving in the wind. The American flag was, incongruously (and in violation of the flag code), in the center. And, I have to confess, I don’t get it.

Part of me wanted to ask obvious questions: You know you are in New Hampshire, right? And, you know New Hampshire was not a part of the Confederacy?

11709431_400316456841007_5791455240479926301_nI ask this because I’m not so sure you do. Here we are in a northern town, a place that gave her sons up to the Union Army and lost them on the battlefields of the Civil War. A place where locals organized early against slavery and led the charge against it across the country. A place where 150 years ago that flag would have been seen as a symbol of treason.

I grew up in the South where I saw plenty of Confederate flags. My college campus had a small Confederate cemetery on it and every Confederate Memorial Day (do you know when that is, by the way?) they’d be decorated with those flags. And I lived in a state where that Confederate emblem was on the flag for far too long.

Some people say it’s heritage. I don’t buy it. I have Confederate soldiers for ancestors, and I’ve never felt the need to honor them by flying that flag.

I also know it wasn’t even the Confederate flag. It was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. (My ancestors’ unit, by the way.) And I know that even the Daughters of the Confederacy advocated not using that flag anymore back in the 1920’s. And I also know that it didn’t really make a comeback until the 1950’s when a Supreme Court decision let African-American children go to school with white children.

Do you think that flag has been flying in front of the South Carolina capitol since 1865? It hasn’t. It was put there for one reason only: racist defiance in the face of integration.

I think you believe that the flag brands you as a “rebel” or somehow honors your outlook on life. It doesn’t. It brands you as a racist. You may not think you are one, but flying that flag is a racist act.

I know that right now you are saying, “But I’m not a racist!” “Heritage, not hate!” But this isn’t your heritage. It’s mine. And it is hate. And it is racism. And every time you put that flag on the back of your car, we all go back in time a little. And the past wasn’t so great for many of our neighbors.

The present isn’t so great either, by the way. Because in a time when nine African-American churchgoers were massacred at their church by a man wearing that flag, and in a week when seven black churches have been burned with little media attention, those flags tell everyone that you couldn’t care less about what is happening. Others can suffer, so long as you get to wear your flag. It’s like showing up at a funeral and dancing on the grave.

Is that the kind of man you are? One who doesn’t care who is being hurt, so long as you get to show off your flags on your truck?

You aren’t being a rebel. And you aren’t being courageous. And you won’t be on the right side of history.

But here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to end like that. You can stop flying the Confederate flag. You can honor your ancestors here in the North by learning why they were willing to give their lives to fight against that flag. And you can honor my ancestors down in the South by saying you are willing to learn from their mistakes.

Please. Our town doesn’t need those flags. And, if you look inside and find your better self, you’ll find that neither do you.

A few words about comments:

1. For those asking why I didn’t personally speak to him, I’ve only seen him while he was driving and couldn’t figure out how to get him to stop. My wife was in the car alone when she took this picture. Given the racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs I’ve received in comments (deleted) from people claiming to be his friend, I’m glad she didn’t stop. But I’d welcome him to come talk to me.

2. Post away but use your full, real name (First and last) or else I will delete your comments without reading.

3. My mom’s side is from NH and has been for 13 generations. Dad’s is from the South. So don’t tell me I don’t belong in NH.

4. No one is forcibly taking your flag from you. I am saying consider the message you are sending. A part of me wishes every racist would carry that flag so they’d be easy to identify. But I also hope everyone who really, truly does not want to be racist will decide to stop flying it.

5. Because some of the comments I received used derogatory and bigoted terms, I’m moderating comments now (because disagreement is fine but I refuse to host those words on my page). I’m also away for the weekend with my wife so your comment may take a couple of days to appear.

Thanks!