“Since when have we Americans been expected to bow submissively to authority and speak with awe and reverence to those who represent us? The constitutional theory is that we the people are the sovereigns, the state and federal officials only our agents. We who have the final word can speak softly or angrily. We can seek to challenge and annoy, as we need not stay docile and quiet.”
— Justice William O. Douglas
Unjust. Brutal. Criminal. Corrupt. Inept. Greedy. Power-hungry. Racist. Immoral. Murderous. Evil. Dishonest. Crooked. Excessive. Deceitful. Untrustworthy. Unreliable. Tyrannical.
These are all words that I have used at some time or other to describe the U.S. government. That I may feel morally compelled to call out the government for its wrongdoing does not make me any less of an American.
If I didn’t love this country, it would be easy to remain silent. However, it is because I love my country — because I believe fervently that if we lose freedom here, there will be no place to escape to — I will not remain silent.
Nor should you.
This is the beauty of the dream-made-reality that is America. As Chelsea Manning recognized: “We’re citizens, not subjects. We have the right to criticize government without fear.”
Indeed, the First Amendment does more than give us a right to criticize our country: It makes it a civic duty. Certainly, if there is one freedom among the many spelled out in the Bill of Rights that is especially patriotic, it is the right to criticize the government.
The right to speak out against government wrongdoing is the quintessential freedom.
Unfortunately, those who run the government don’t take kindly to individuals who speak truth to power. In fact, the government has become increasingly intolerant of speech that challenges its power, reveals its corruption, exposes its lies, and encourages the citizenry to push back against the government’s many injustices.
This is nothing new, nor is it unique to any particular presidential administration.
President Trump, who delights in exercising his right to speak (and tweet) freely about anything and everything that raises his ire, has shown himself to be far less tolerant of those with whom he disagrees, especially when they exercise their right to criticize the government.
Trump has declared the media to be “the enemy of the people” and suggested that protesting should be illegal and that NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem “shouldn’t be in the country.” More recently, Trump lashed out at four Democratic members of Congress — all women of color — who have been particularly critical of his policies, suggesting that they “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
The uproar over Trump’s “America — love it or leave it” remarks has largely focused on its racist overtones, but that misses the point: It’s un-American to be anti-free speech.
It’s unfortunate that Trump is so clueless about the Constitution. Then again, as the history books make clear, Trump is not alone in his presidential disregard for the rights of the citizenry, especially as it pertains to the right of the people to criticize those in power.
While the government has been undermining our free speech rights for quite a while now, Trump’s antagonism toward free speech is much more overt. For example, at a recent White House Social Media Summit, Trump defined free speech as follows: “To me, free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write bad. To me that’s very dangerous speech, and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.”
Except Trump is about as wrong as one can be on this issue.
Good, bad or ugly, it’s all free speech unless, as defined by the government, it falls into one of the following categories: obscenity, fighting words, defamation (including libel and slander), child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless action, true threats, and solicitations to commit crimes.
This idea of “dangerous” speech, on the other hand, is peculiarly authoritarian in nature. What it amounts to is speech that the government fears could challenge its chokehold on power.
The kinds of speech the government considers dangerous enough to red flag and subject to censorship, surveillance, investigation, prosecution and outright elimination include: hate speech, bullying speech, intolerant speech, conspiratorial speech, treasonous speech, threatening speech, incendiary speech, inflammatory speech, radical speech, anti-government speech, right-wing speech, left-wing speech, extremist speech, politically incorrect speech, etc.
Yet this idea that only individuals who agree with the government are entitled to the protections of the First Amendment couldn’t be further from what James Madison, the father of the Constitution, intended. Indeed, Madison was very clear about the fact that the First Amendment was established to protect the minority against the majority.
I’ll take that one step further: The First Amendment was intended to protect the citizenry from the government’s tendency to censor, silence and control what people say and think.
Having lost our tolerance for free speech in its most provocative, irritating and offensive forms, the American people have become easy prey for a police state where only government speech is allowed. You see, the powers-that-be understand that if the government can control speech, it controls thought and, in turn, it can control the minds of the citizenry.
This is how freedom rises or falls.
Americans of all stripes would do well to remember that those who question the motives of government provide a necessary counterpoint to those who would blindly follow where politicians choose to lead.
We don’t have to agree with every criticism of the government, but we must defend the rights of all individuals to speak freely without fear of punishment or threat of banishment.
Tolerance for dissent is vital if we are to survive as a free nation.
John W. Whitehead is president and founder of the Albemarle County-based Rutherford Institute, a civil-liberties organization, and author of “Battlefield America: The War on the American People.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A longer version of this commentary is available at www.Rutherford.org.