Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech
As the excellent documentary “Shouting Fire” reminds us, the First Amendment didn’t always guarantee free speech.
100 years ago, it was against the law to speak your mind about the issues of the day. Dozens of Americans were imprisoned for saying that the United States shouldn’t be fighting in World War I.
When the case of jailed Socialist Charles Schenck was brought before the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – who was apparently an idiot – concluded that arguing in favor of peace was unprotected speech. He famously likened Schenck’s anti-war pamphlets to “shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a panic.”
Apparently, in Holmes’s feeble fascistic mind, acting like a jerk and causing strangers to be trampled is ethically analogous to not wanting your son to have his legs blown off by a landmine while inhaling mustard gas.
To its credit, the government no longer locks people up for speaking their minds.
Disturbingly, though, our culture seems to grow less tolerant of unpopular speech with every passing year.
In “Shouting Fire,” clear-headed documentarian Liz Garbus introduces us to some people who suffered at the hands of the new American thought police.
We meet an Arab-American principal who was fired for failing to criticize a pro-Muslim tee-shirt hard enough. We meet a Colorado professor who was fired for daring to suggest that our government’s violent actions may have inspired the 9/11 terrorists. We meet an earnest Christian teenager who was threatened with expulsion for putting a sticker on his shirt that read “homosexuality is shameful.”
I didn’t like or agree with any of these people. But I felt terrible for them – and our society at large. I am pro-homosexuality to my core. But I also can’t comprehend how my gay pride perspective is any more legitimate than that kid’s gay shame point of view. We should both feel totally free to express our differing opinion and try to convince each other. It’s absurd to teach a child to be tolerant by treating him with rabid intolerance.
The most troubling aspect of America’s self-censorship movement is that it is happening in our schools and colleges.
To me, the greatest lesson one can learn in college is that you are fallible. No matter how much you learn, there is always more to discover. No matter how right you think you are about a topic, you should always be eager to hear another perspective and to be open to having your mind changed.
In 21st Century academia, students and professors must limit and suppress their ideas for fear of offending people.
We need to change our philosophy on the matter of taking offense. If you are offended by something that your classmate Rachel says, you and you alone must take responsibility for your feelings. It’s not Rachel’s fault, it is yours. In fact, if you are offended, you should apologize to Rachel because it is your closed, uptight mind that didn’t allow you to understand and consider her point of view.
The reason Donald Trump is worshipped like an orange balding demigod by 1/4 of America is that he is the only man in the political realm who has the audacity to say what is on his mind, even when it’s shocking and abrasive. And when the thought police calls him a Nazi and a Klansman and demands that he apologize, Trump bravely doubles down and says something even more shocking.
To people like me who enjoy expressing weird and unpopular opinions, Trump’s uncensored speeches are viscerally liberating.
If anything I said today offended you: you’re welcome!