In the age of small sound bites, it has become evident that many people forgo reading and understanding our country’s founding documents, like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They quote bits from them, containing an agenda matching theirs, as if it were the law.

Recently, members of an online group were up in arms because the moderators enacted a rule against using the forum to support President Trump and his administration. An immediate protest arose from some members, accusing the moderators of bias and limiting free speech. That was true. They were indeed biased and restricting free speech, as was their right as private citizens.

You get the idea that some people think that being prevented from saying anything they want on private forums or property violates their constitutional right to free speech. That protest is based on a misunderstanding of the actual wording of the Bill of Rights. It is stated that “Congress shall pass no laws abridging the freedom of speech.” You and I are not members of Congress. This means we are not limited in our right to curtail speech or speak as we see fit within our homes, groups, or places we control or personally own. Others have that same right, and if some don’t like it, they can assemble elsewhere.

Even so, there are definitely words generally agreed to by society to be taboo. Though we have the right to use those words, we can be so ostracized by their use that most people usually avoid using those terms. It may be legal, and we have every right to say them, but no sensible person does so. Only those who wish to denigrate others will still do so.

There are legal exceptions to our freedom of speech. Specific situations apply when the speech would likely cause harm to others. The most notable would be shouting, “Fire!” in a theater. Slander, child pornography, physical force, and fraud are also included. Another exception seems to extend to politicians, especially when running for office, who are apparently exempt from fraud and slander. At least, that is the way it seems to me.

There does seem to be a movement in certain circles to limit free speech when it is offensive to a political or moral viewpoint, even when it does not violate the First Amendment. One term used to describe it is “hate speech.” The seemingly sound reasoning is that it can cause harm, but that is a very slippery slope. It’s okay if you want to outlaw hate speech in your private group, but not in our public institutions. I refer particularly to colleges and universities, where it seems most prevalent to me. I think students and faculty should heed Charlie Brown’s advice, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

I imagine a lot of this misquoting of our rights and misconceptions could be avoided. There should be a mandatory course in high school in which each student must understand and memorize the entirety of the Constitution, the Amendments, and the Bill of Rights. In the following semesters, students could debate topics currently argued in the public arena. I doubt my suggestion would ever be acted upon.

We consider ours the greatest country in the world. In spite of our problems, this view is justified. What could be more fundamental to our responsibilities as citizens than an understanding of the Constitution and Bill of Rights?

Jerry Society & Culture

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