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Free Speech - Isn't It?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the United States of America’s Constitution. (Emphasis mine).

Every child learns these words in school (or should, the state of our public schools is a subject for another time). And most adults keep them in mind in today’s litigation-happy society.

The question is, what constitutes free speech, or a law abridging the same? The Supreme Court has recently ruled that it is unconstitutional for students or representatives of the public school system to voice prayers over the public address system at football games or other school events. Some claim that this violates the students’ freedom of speech, that what they can and cannot say is being controlled. Others say that it is not what they say that’s being controlled, rather it is where they say it.Nothing is more divisive than the dicsovery of a difference in religion.

Free speech, in the sense that it is often discussed in America, is the ability, the right, to say what you believe. You can say that taxes are too high. Or you can say that the president is a philanderer. Or that your boss has terrible taste in shoes, and that someone should tell your mother-in-law that purple is not a good hair color when you’re fifty.

However, free speech has its limits, as every responsible adult knows. You cannot slander someone in print. You cannot threaten to kill people (especially the president). You cannot shout, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Say what you will – within limits.

Those limits are growing every day, it seems. With the inception of hate speech laws, the realm of what is unacceptable grows and grows. You cannot publicly degrade someone because of their race, their sexual orientation, or their religion. Not unless you are prepared to undergo legal proceedings of one type or another.

Do hate speech laws abridge freedom of speech? That’s the main question. It also ties in with another important question in today’s society: Does public prayer constitute free speech, and what bounds should be placed on it as such?

Let’s address the hate speech issue first. Yes, if I am to be perfectly honest I must admit that, technically, controlling whether someone says hateful things does seem to be a law abridging freedom of speech. In this instance, for this one particular type of speech, do I believe this a bad thing? No, I don’t believe so. No one should fight to protect the right to public and invasive bigotry. Although I support people’s right to believe whatever they wish (no thought-police here, please), I believe that some things should be limited to private belief and private conversation. If you hate homosexuals, that is a problem that you have, personally. I do not think that you should be jailed for the thought or the belief. Ask me, though, if I think you should be allowed to stand on a street corner and shout that they will (or should) die and burn in hell. The answer would be a resounding no.

What about public prayer? As an atheist, this is of course a very important subject to me. I know how it is to sit amongst a group of people who listen, heads bowed, as someone extols the virtues of a belief system I do not share. Or worse, as this same person degrades or derides (and I count expressing pity in this category) those who do not share their belief.

Now, if I go to a church or religion related function, I would naturally expect and resign myself to this type of behavior. Simply put, if I’ve made the decision to join a grouping of that sort, I’ve got to expect them to behave in the manner appropriate to them.

However, if I’ve only gone to a public function which is in and of itself of a secular nature, I do not believe that I should be forced to endure someone else’s religious practices in a public way. If the man next to me at the ball game chooses to pray over his supper hotdog, I have no objection. More power to him for having the convictions of his faith. But if this same man goes on the public address system and insists that everyone join in (or at least listen) to his supper prayer, I feel that my own autonomy has been violated. Simply put, I believe that his right to free speech and the expression of his ideas ends when they infringe upon my own personal rights.

In this last example, I was talking a public affair, one which I have the right to attend, and also the right to leave. There are those who would say that if I do not like what occurs, I should simply not attend these types of functions. I can understand that argument, although I do not agree with it. This is because I do not believe I should have to tailor my life and activities around someone else’s desire to make public the private decisions of faith.

What about situations where the person has no choice? I mean, of course, the issue of religion in public schools. We all know that it is no longer legal for school officials to lead students in prayer during class time, or at functions such as pep rallies and assemblies. It has also been ruled that students may not elect a fellow student to perform the same role. Although there are those groups fighting these things, they have more or less been accepted. The basic reasoning here is much the same as the autonomy argument used above. Even more strongly in young people, whose “sense of self” may not be fully defined and is probably strongly contingent on the opinions of their peers, it is important not to allow behaviors which may be divisive. Nothing is more divisive than the discovery of a difference in religion. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it is the small differences between Baptist and Catholic, or the huge differences between believer and atheist.

What some people are still fighting, though, is to get the biblical ten commandments placed into schools, to have biblical creationism taught in science classes, and in other ways to slide religion and religious beliefs into what is essentially a secular school system. This secularism is very nearly a necessity, given the wide range of diverse beliefs one may find in any given town (and thus in any given school).

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