The Trouble with Free Speech…

The trouble with free speech seems to be that people only care when it is THEIR views being protected.

I was a legal observer for the immigration rally today in Pittsburgh. About 250 people marched through downtown, ending up at Senator Specter’s office. Not bad for Pittsburgh, which doesn’t have a very large (or organized) Latino community.

There was one lone counter-protestor. He was a fairly young guy–still probably in college. He had made a sign out of cardboard that said ‘Seal the Borders’ and stayed at the front of the march so that he would be seen by passersby (and interviewed by the media, which he was).

There were also a group of young demonstrators in the march–maybe ten of them, none of them Latino–that kept harassing the guy. They kept shoving him and his sign, and finally at the end of the march they took his sign forcefully and ripped it into pieces before him.

After his sign was ripped up, the guy walked away from the crowd. I went over to him. He was really upset and emotional–I even saw tears in his eyes. We talked for a little while and he asked me ‘What about my free speech?’

I wished that I could have helped him or given him a good answer, but the ACLU only deals with government violations of civil liberties. I just offered to give him the pictures that I had taken of the incident, if he wanted them. To their credit, a number of demonstrators apologized to him for the actions of some of the participants.

I had very fixed feelings about it. I hated everything the guy had been screaming during the march. He was definitely a bigot, and even seemed a little nutty to me.

But I knew that the kids who tore up his sign expect THEIR free speech to be protected; in fact, that was precisely what they were exercising. But for them, freedom of speech only applied to the speech they liked.

It all seems very human and natural–the desire limit freedom of speech to that with which we agree; it’s not restricted to any one part of the ideological spectrum. And maybe that’s why that inclination needs to be fought so hard–it is just too tempting to want to shut up and shut down people we don’t like.

Lisa in Pittsburgh

7 thoughts on “The Trouble with Free Speech…

  1. I totally agree. That’s why it’s so hard to be truly accepting of free speech. It guarantees that you will be offended by someone at some time.

    Too many times in this country right now, we have people that immediately try to legislate what can and can’t be said. Their arguments are usually along the lines of “How can you possibly say it’s ok to say things like that?”

    I think many people can’t separate WHAT is being said from the RIGHT to say it.

    If someone says something you don’t like, have a debate with them. The overwhelming odds are that you won’t make a dent in their opinion, but, at least for now, we live in a free country where that’s ok.

  2. The “seal the borders” guy was pushing it. He was trying to use his right to free speech to interfere with the same right of other people. Effectively he was trying to hijack the protest and substitute another message, and to some extent he succeeded. Inasmuch as he did succeed, he was taking away the free speech of the main protest.

    Nevertheless, a tricky area.

  3. As a volunteer escort at a Planned Parenthood clinic, I’ve encountered for several years the same protesters with the same signs. Some are bible verses, some are slogans, and a couple are very large (six feet plus) posters of what purport to be aborted fetuses. They are gruesome and ugly, very ugly. At least once a month a passer-by will stop to ask if we can’t compel the removal of those two signs. I have to explain that to do so would violate the protesters’ right to free speech. About half understand my point, but at least half do not. The irony is that the people to whom they are directed, the clinic’s patients, are usually the most offended and direct their antagonism at the protesters, not the abortion the signs purport to portray. In other words, the posters elicit the opposite reaction to what they sought. So I’m happy for them to continue to carry them. As so often happens the message says more about the messenger than about the target, which is one of my rationale’s for being an ardent supporter of free speech. When given the chance, many people, especially zealots, will make fools of themselves.

  4. I totally disagree that the “seal the borders” guy was pushing it. You seriously claim that a single guy holding a sign “hijacked” a rally of 250 people? Come on. The only serious interference with free speech was done by the protestors that shoved and intimidated him, and finally tore up his sign. I think the only tricky thing about this incident is overcoming our human desire to see free speech as a zero sum game.

    The protestors responsible for this behavior were anarchists who tend act as foot soldiers for some of the hard left organizations in Pittsburgh. If anybody tried to hijack that rally it was the anarchist thugs that introduced this element of physical violence into an otherwise peaceful and moving rally.

  5. Really. He wasn’t trying to hijack their rally. No, no, he just happened to want to walk along the same route. Nothing to do with the main protest. Coincidence. Amazing how these things happen.

    This guy has so little respect for freedom of speech that he won’t let others state their point without trying to barge in and disrupt it. Upset afterwards, was he? Well, when you pick a fight, expect to deal with the consequences.

    Personally I’m amazed he wasn’t beaten to a pulp. The “hard left” “anarchist thugs” that anonymous describes were models of restraint.

    I bet he didn’t have a separate permit either.

  6. The man didn’t pick a fight, he merely had the courage to be a lone counter-protestor in a crowd of 250 people. Is this crazy? maybe. But this does not justify being assaulted by a gang of ten “progressive” anarchists. It’s sad to see how easily ideological people slide towards justifiying violence regardless of their ideological stripe.

    The whole thing is even more ironic, because the aforementioned anarchist thugs (members of: scream to high heaven about their rights to free speech when confronted by the police. But when confronted with speech they didn’t like, they had no qualms about physically intimidating a young black man whose only crime was to stage a counter protest.

    And what’s this permit stuff? The anarchist kids are now enforcing city rules? Gimme a break.

  7. Sigh. Counter-protestor. If he organised his own counter-protest, I would be 100% behind his right to do so.

    But he didn’t. He wanted to steal the space created by the 250 protestors for their free speech and use it himself.
    You chose the term.

    Alternatively, how would you suggest that the main protestors could have gone about the task differently, of protecting their event from his disruption?

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