Freedom of speech is a touchy issue, especially when confronted with morality and the idea of indirect harm. At this juncture in time, presented with the Occupation Wall Street protests and the religious speakers coming to campus yet again, I begin to hear students mumbling and complaining to one another about two things: freedom of speech and separation of church and state.
Where can we go from the text of the first amendment? There has to be a limit to free speech somewhere. In this time, the limit issue comes up in cases of harm.
So yes, while preachers outside windows and lunch rooms may be an inconvenience, are they truly harmful? Besides distracting a few students from classes, and maybe being mongering and insulting, what more is wrong? The bookstore insults us each year at book buy back events with price differences. Parking lots changed from resident to commuter insult students when they feel rejected by the school. Looking at the quad right now, I would have to say it is much more harmful to the campus than a handful of men yelling “evolution is a lie.” It is not illegal for them to be on campus, to make that clear. Think of a recent case that went all of the way to Supreme Court, the Westboro Baptist Church. The group, who protested in a moderate region of military funerals, won the case in light of the first amendment and the right to free speech versus the harm caused to the personal freedoms of the father. Honestly, although they can be as annoying, condescending, and ill-representative as any zealous propagandists, they appear to in no way be breaking the law. This is a public institution, on states grounds, where people are welcome, even if they verbally call out everyone they meet.
There is very little connection between the idea of the separation of religion and state in these events. They are not petitioning the school board for a mandatory prayer meeting every Tuesday. In no way are they forcing their all-exclusive ideals on anybody’s soul. They are offering you a product as you pass by, just like bake sales and fundraisers. They have a right to peaceful protest, and as long as they remain uninvolved in the violence that may arrive, like flying water bottles, stolen signs, and the lot, they have remained within their right.
One individual got up and declared that she was homosexual and Christian, in response to the continuous stream of anti-homosexual declarations by the preachers. She pulled a cross out from beneath the ring of her t-shirt and showed it to the crowd.
Like many around, assumably, I felt a twinge of regret that these men had come onto this campus and insulted her. On the other hand, it starts to bring into question whether that is harm, making the preachers acts illegal, or is it just an annoying opinion muttering through the middle of campus?
I think what we all forget when we are insulted is that people like these, what we might call “Radicals,” are in close relation to other free speech protected humanists who work for indisputably good ends.
On Wall Street right now, whether or not you have been presented with the news, people are protesting the economic structure, more or less, with an idea of the 1% and the 99%. They bring forth an idea that too small a group of the population owns too much in a time of economic fluctuation and moderate downturns, especially in light of recent threats to medicare, social security and a slew of other government and self funded programs in relation to bail outs of the past few years to private industries.
This isn’t about the protestors needing to get better jobs, go to college, and the like. That’s stupid, and ignorant. They are not protesting that they are poor, but rather, that there is an extremely unequal distribution of wealth, the highest level focused on a large group of people who abused a financial system to the point of almost destroying it, and then left the scraps of the economy to the government and so-called 99%. These protestors are being arrested, maced, beaten, and penned up. A twelve year old was arrested on Saturday. They have maintained peaceful protesting throughout the course of the past few weeks.
So in this case, it seems, the freedom of speech must have been preached by some violation of a type of harm principle. The question is, where is the breach? They didn’t have paperwork? Maybe they blocked normal traffic patterns? Either way, when does a slight inconvenience for normal traffic become a harm?
How can we reconcile these two ideas within the freedom of speech clause within the first amendment?
The answer is we can’t.