It has been said that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Words and ideas are what inspire actions and victories. But words can be used for evil as well as for good. Should we really allow speech to be free?
What does “free speech” mean? It means that I can express my own opinion both on my own property and on public property. On the flip side, however, it also means that you can decline to listen to my opinion by avoiding or boycotting me. Still, with freedom of speech, I may voice offensive opinions. Should we create certain limits?
Once we start setting boundaries to free speech, it is impossible to find a limit that will still leave people free. Without freedom of speech, a society is not free at all.
How bad is this dilemma? And which side of it should we choose? We will look at two examples; first, an example of restricted speech, and second, the way free speech operates in a free society.
Robert Ziegler was a high-school math teacher at Papillion-La Vista Public School. After a year of teaching, he became uncomfortable with the silence he had been maintaining about his Christian faith. Next year, he decided to articulate his opinions, giving Biblical grounds for them, whenever it seemed appropriate; for instance, when he felt he ought to warn or correct his students with respect to their behavior. “I was going to teach what was honoring to God,” Ziegler stated in an interview with Colin Gunn. After a few warnings, he was fired upon the accusation of neglecting his duties. But it was clear that what constituted neglect of duty was his refusal to stop being vocal about his beliefs.
It is difficult to know whether or not what the school board decided in this case was in accordance with current laws aimed at keeping religion out of the classroom. From Ziegler’s standpoint, he felt that spending a short amount of time emphasizing his Christian opinions would benefit the students even from a scholastic perspective. How can a teacher truly do his job if speaking on what he feels is the cornerstone of learning is prohibited to him?
Unlike a private school, where parents and others can voluntarily choose to support the school depending on their impression of the school’s worth, public schools are paid for through an involuntary tax system. If everyone has to pay, then it makes sense that public schools should be run in a way that will please everyone – a perfectly open, unbiased, and neutral way. But that is impossible!
In other areas, people are able to choose what books, programs, and movies, they and their children will be exposed to. But within the public school system, someone else has to make the decision for them – and no matter how fair that person tries to make the system, it will never be neutral!
If we cannot achieve neutrality, then where will the bias be? More importantly, do we want the government choosing the bias towards which our children will be educated?
In the previous case we saw how an attempt at neutrality resulted in the ejection of a competent teacher. In this next example, we will show how a series of non-neutral opinions freely resolved themselves into a solution.
Following Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s condemnation of homosexuality as sin, Cracker Barrel announced, “We removed selected products which we were concerned might offend some of our guests.” In practice, it would appear that Cracker Barrel had decided to phase out all Duck Commander products.
Of course, Cracker Barrel has a right to sell what it pleases, and there was no violation of free speech in their move. As John Stossel put it in his TV special, Censored in America, “private businesses can have any speech rule they want.” In fact, that is a big part of their right to free speech!
This is the way free speech ought to operate, with individuals making their own choices. Phil Robertson exercised his freedom of speech by expressing an opinion and standing by it, and Cracker Barrel exercised its freedom by refusing to carry Duck Commander products any longer.
Then, Duck Dynasty fans exercised their freedom of speech by protesting to the restaurant and threatening boycott.
Only a day later, Cracker Barrel responded. “Dear Cracker Barrel Customer… You wrote, you called and you took to social media to express your thoughts and feelings. You flat out told us we were wrong…. Today, we are putting all our Duck Dynasty products back in our stores. And, we apologize for offending you.” Throughout the whole process, freedom of speech was permitted and encouraged, leading to a final decision that was in accordance with customer’s desires and Cracker Barrel’s best interests.
Was a little rudeness expressed? Probably. But in the end, the solution was far more pleasant than kicking a teacher out of his job. Brute force can never reach as agreeable a conclusion as simple communication can.
Two options confront us: either people should be allowed to express their opinions freely, or someone needs to step up and become arbitrator. We have seen what happens when the government plays referee – brute force is used and individuals lose their freedom to make choices. When free speech is encouraged, on the other hand, people vocalize their opinions – not always politely – and a solution is eventually arrived at. Every idea has room to grow. Most importantly, there is no planner out there trying to tackle the impossible task of impartially deciding what should be said and what should be suppressed. No human being has enough information to take on such a monumental job; mistakes will be made and there will be consequences. Rather than having the government lay down the law and force others to adhere to its own arbitrary standards, individuals should be granted the freedom to choose, to express, and yes, even to disagree.