The Meaning of Free Speech

The flap over a Colorado high-school geography teacher illustrates two faults in American society today. One: Talk radio and talk television have taken on the role of rabble-rousers who routinely incite the mobs over any trivial matter. Two: People still obviously believe in word magic.

The teacher, Jay Bennish, said in a lecture in his geography course that there were some similarities between President Bush’s last State of the Union speech and speeches Adolf Hitler used to make.

First off, let’s deal with word magic. Whether the statement is true or false, it is an opinion — one of millions of opinions floating around the United States. The old childhood nursery rhyme "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" applies to opinions as well as to epithets.

Those raising the hoopla must think high-school students are malleable idiots who automatically accept anything a teacher tells them. Anybody who has ever been a student or a teacher knows that’s a load of baloney. I suspect many of the students are no more interested in the teacher’s political opinions than in his geography lectures. Often, students love to get the teacher sidetracked on some subject other than the one they have to study.

At any rate, to believe that a teacher criticizing the president and his policies does harm, you have to believe that the students are mindless morons, and they obviously are not. By the way, I was just on a tour boat at a Florida attraction and the boat captain criticized President Bush for selling off slices of the national forests. The people in the boat applauded.

When the Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment, it was not their intention to protect politically correct speech. It is exactly the purpose of the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech. Read John Stuart Mill’s essay "On Liberty." The value of freedom is the diversity of opinions and thoughts it encourages. It’s that old saying, "Which would you prefer, a hundred minds working to solve a problem, or just one?"

People opposed to free speech are devious. "Oh, I believe in free speech, but not for teachers," they will say. "I believe in free speech but not hate speech," which is speech that’s critical of individuals, groups or nations they favor. Free speech is like virginity — you either have it or you don’t. Speech that seeks to limit unpopular, even obnoxious, opinions is anything but free.

As for the rabble-rousers on radio and television, they have become the enemies of intelligent discussion of any issue. These characters are demagogues, always looking for raw meat to throw to their little band of followers. More than half the time, they get their facts wrong.

These radio and TV characters, too, are entitled to free speech, just like Nazis, white supremacists, black racists and any other unsavory elements you can think of, but of course no one has to listen to them. As with any extremist, they might even occasionally get something right.

Americans need to learn to relax and enjoy liberty. Words are just sounds and symbols, and have no magical powers. The best way to learn to think critically is to listen to and read people you don’t agree with. When you hear or read an opinion, you must assess it and evaluate it, and decide for yourself whether you agree or disagree. This is a healthy process.

You want teachers who are passionate, even if you disagree with what they are passionate about. The worst teachers are the dullards who put you to sleep.

As for similarities between Bush’s and Hitler’s speeches, there are some. If you read Hitler’s prewar speeches, he was always talking about peace, making appeals to patriotism and setting up scapegoats. Bush does exactly the same thing. The Colorado teacher, by the way, made it clear that there is no moral similarity between Bush and Hitler; he was talking strictly about political speeches.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.