The real cost of free speech

Posted on 07. Nov, 2011 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

This is not a diatribe on the First Amendment. Everyone knows that during America’s 200 plus year existence, hundreds of thousands of men and women have died defending our liberties, chief among them our right to free speech. So we continue to thank and honor them by exercising our right of dissent by raising our voices individually or collectively whenever the grievance warrants it.

Freedom of assembly is the first cousin to freedom of speech, for without the right to gather in numbers, our voices would be diminished if not relegated to America’s back rooms. That’s not to say that louder voices improve the validity of the arguments. They don’t. It is important to realize, however, that the resonance of the argument is amplified when many voices are joined together.

They shake loose the cobwebs, disrupt decorum and make us stop and listen to points of view that we may not have heard for a long time or for the very first time. Protests are an important part of American life. For some, that statement will sound strange, because many do not remember the violent anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam-era, but if we look at our revolutionary history, our civil rights victories, collective bargaining gains and other achievements, we realize that it’s true.

Protests are like our body’s natural warning system. Our brain, nerve endings and skin receptors work together to warn us to pull back our fingers from the flame or we’ll get burned. Without public dissent, our body politic could also suffer from staying on the wrong path too long.

Having thrown my support behind protesting in general, I must also say that every protest ought to adhere to the laws and regulations for public assembly imposed by the communities in which they are being held. Abuse of the law, whether on public or private property, should not be tolerated in a free society that is built on adherence to the law.

That brings me to the real costs of free speech.

We have seen the Tea Party protests comprised of hundreds of thousands of Americans unfold peacefully over the past few years with no arrests made and no destruction of property.  These stand in stark contrast to the protests now known as ‘Occupy Wall St’ (OWS) that have spread throughout the country leaving chaos and destruction in their wake. The media seems ever ready to focus on the grievances of OWS while almost ignoring the very real costs of their demonstrations and lawlessness to communities, businesses and individuals who live or work near the sites of those protests.

It’s hard for me as an average American who respects property rights to condone such destruction and the resulting millions it will take to repair the harm done by these protesters at a time when our society should be doing everything it can to preserve what infrastructure we have. No community, whether small or large, should be made to shoulder the financial burden of the excessive damage caused by the civil disobedience of groups that don’t respect the very laws that give them the right to dissent.

I have long feared this situation would develop. It is, among other things, the result of our unwillingness to challenge the politics of personal destruction and institutional demonization that have led, predictably, to the politics of personal property destruction. The OWS protesters have flaunted their own rights at the expense of others.’ In so doing, they have crossed the line and created a hardened committed opposition to themselves AND their cause – a cardinal sin that many protesters commit. Instead of doing their own ideological due diligence, they are flailing wildly about in Don Quixote fashion at anything that smacks of the status quo.  America’s streets must not be the proving ground for the theory that in order to save a village you must destroy it.

- Editor

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