The (Not So) Funny Thing about Freedom of Speech
January 16, 2014
Funny thing happened the other day. A Facebook friend blocked me because I suggested that we all have to consider the consequences of what we say. I guess I found out the consequences of saying that!
But, seriously, freedom of speech is no laughing matter. And, in fact, it is probably one of the things I am most proud of about this country—that we can challenge our government without fear of losing life or limb.
I grew up in a time and place in which it was not uncommon to have neighbors or fellow church members from Central America—refugees whose family members had “disappeared” because they spoke out against their country’s dictators. I also remember childhood stories about other countries from which my friends had fled or where our church’s missionaries served—countries where neighbors might report their neighbors for challenging their government or for speaking freely about their religion.
I prefer not to dilute the idea of freedom of speech.
My point in the above-referenced Facebook conversation was that there’s a difference between violations of freedom and speech and facing consequences for what we say. And we all have to be ready to (wo)man up to what we say. I shared that throughout my career I’ve had to weigh how much to say. I have often worked as an advocate, pronouncing challenges to the system that might keep me from ever having certain types of cushy corporate jobs or might make me the enemy of a particular political administration. It affects my career options. But I make those decisions intentionally based on my values and what I understand my life calling to be. And I don’t cry about the consequences.
Of course, this debate was prompted by the whole Duck Dynasty thing.
Now, I don’t have cable. And I’m not a big reality show fan. So I’ve never seen Duck Dynasty. And I didn’t read the entire article which caused the furor nor have I seen more than just snippets of interviews or commentaries about it on the air. But I am convinced that anyone who has a TV show and derives their income based on the public’s loyalty or public opinion has got to know that what they say may have an impact on their livelihood. A family member might be kicked off the show. A sports celebrity might lose an endorsement. A politician might lose an election. There are consequences to what we say.
But the government did not come and censor Duck Dynasty for what was said nor confiscate their property. No one was thrown in jail or forced into exile. No one “disappeared.”
If we’re going to complain about infringement upon our freedom of speech, let’s complain about things like this:
Back in the early-mid 2000s when I was running a non-profit housing advocacy organization, we participated in a coalition that developed a “report card” evaluating the mayor’s performance on a number of issues. Our committee focused on the state of affordable housing in Chicago. We held a press conference to annouce the D+ grade we gave the mayor.
Lucky for me, I was unable to play a leading role in the press conference. I told my colleagues I would arrive late because of a previous commitment, so I couldn’t speak to the media. I actually got there so late that I missed it altogether. The crowd was dispersing when I arrived.
The next day, our coalition’s action got prominent coverage in the local newspaper, with a big picture accompanying the article. My colleagues who had spoken in the press conference were featured in the photo.
And the very next day, every single person who appeared in the picture in the paper had City building inspectors show up at their personal home looking for possible building code violations. I would have been less surprised if the inspectors showed up at the non-profits that dared to criticize the mayor. But harassing the individuals at their private residences? I was shocked and dismayed. Well, maybe not shocked. I do live in Chicago. But I certainly was dismayed.
Then there was that Chic-Fil-A thing last year.
I happen to know the Chicago city councilman who stirred things up by saying that he would oppose the location of a new Chic-Fil-A in his district because of the chain’s anti-homosexual stance. The ward in which this became an issue is right next door to my long-time neighborhood. So this hit quite close to home for me.
In this case, I side with Chic-Fil-A.
I need to go meet with this alderman one of these days soon to get some advice. So I’m taking a chance here by even mentioning it. (Yes, there can be consequences to what we say.) But, I’m going to count on there being room for healthy debate about positions as part of an on-going effort to always be moving our democracy toward a better place.
You see, I’m convinced that freedom of speech means that the government can’t deny a company the right to do business just because of their political or religious or any other kinds of opinions or statements. I would, however, come down really hard on Chic-Fil-A if they were found to be illegally discriminating against homosexuals in their employment practices or otherwise. That’s illegal. But speaking out against homosexuality or gay marriage is not. It just might lose you a bunch of business. Or gain you some.
As for me, there are a number of business I personally boycott because of the stances their owners take in loud, public ways. That’s an appropriate response. I don’t shop at Walmart. I don’t consume Oberweiss products. I don’t eat at Jimmy John’s. If you can’t imagine why, I’ll let you do the research—or keep reading my blog over the coming weeks and months. Oh, and, actually, I think I’ve only twice ever eaten at Chic-Fil-A.
As for the subject of freedom of speech sometimes being funny, I did think there was a lot that was laughable about the whole Duck Dynasty thing. Not the least of which is the fact that some of the same people (or types of people) who were so upset that Phil Robertson may face monetary consequences for what he said were more than happy to financially punish the Dixie Chicks when they publicly aired their negative opinions about President George Bush.
But, hey, that’s a discussion for another day.