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FIRST-PERSON: Free speech ought to be responsible speech as well

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–While all speech in the United States is free, it is not all protected or legal. If I waltz into a local movie theater and shout, “Anthrax has been found in the building!” when it has not, I will be prosecuted.

I don’t even want to think what might occur if I did the same while boarding an airliner. Content as well as context determine whether speech is protected according to the U.S. Constitution.

The sponsors of the First Amendment were seeking to secure the right of American citizens to express unfettered opinions about their government. They were well aware that the British government responded to dissent with fines, whippings and jail. Therefore, in order to insure that no such tyrannical reality occur in the United States, they carefully worded an amendment that would not allow the government to abridge freedom of speech.

I am not sure we who have known nothing but free speech can appreciate it properly. When all you have ever known is all you have ever known, it is difficult to imagine something different. As a result, some in America have a spoiled brat mentality when it comes to freedom of speech.

There are those in the United States who have interpreted free speech to mean that anyone can say anything at any time. As illustrated earlier, this is simply not the case. Not only do content and context determine if expression is protected by the Constitution, they also determine whether certain speech is appropriate.

The First Amendment only addresses freedom of speech; it does not seek to regulate expression as to its appropriateness. Good thing or we would all be guilty at one time or another.

However, freedom of speech needs to be tempered by a sense of responsibility. I am completely free to articulate what I believe, but there are times it would be better for all parties involved that I keep my mouth shut. As someone once said, “Better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

U.S. Rep. Martin T. Meehan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, could use a lesson on appropriate speech. In the days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the congressman publicly questioned the leadership of President George W. Bush. Meehan went on the record as doubting reports that Air Force One was targeted by terrorists — the reason the White House gave to explain why the president delayed his return to Washington after the attacks. “I don’t buy the notion Air Force One was a target,” Meehan said. “That’s just PR. That’s just spin.”

Normally I would not consider a member of Congress questioning a president’s leadership inappropriate. However, given the context in which the criticism was offered, it was out of line. Our country had just experienced the most devastating attack in its history. For an elected official to publicly suggest that the commander in chief is a coward while the nation is under attack is most inappropriate.

I exercised my freedom of speech and called Mr. Meehan’s office. I suggested that in a time of great national crises like we were experiencing, if he had a bone to pick with the president that he do so in private and not via the press.

I don’t consider an opinion columnist or late-night comedian challenging the president’s leadership in time of national tragedy inappropriate. However, for an elected official to follow suit is completely irresponsible. While the First Amendment protects the rights of each to express his or her opinion, context determines which is appropriate.

In the days since the Sept. 11 attacks, many in the public eye have been challenged and even vilified for comments made. Some have even lost jobs. America, it seems, is in the process of re-learning that freedom of speech does not mean that all expression must be celebrated or subsidized by the public at large.

Freedom of speech is a double-edged sword. While one is free to state his or her opinion, others are also free to reject it. Context as much as content usually determines the latter.
Boggs’ column appears each Friday in Baptist Press.

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  • Kelly Boggs