Posts Tagged ‘first amendment’

A few thoughts on free speech

February 12, 2012

The funny thing about this piece is that after it was first published in the small town newspaper where I work, it caused a huge controversy. People were angry about the language I used, prompting letters, phone calls, and even canceled subscriptions. The paper issued an apology in the next issue, which prompted angry letters from the other side, saying that no apology was necessary. It’s been nearly a month, and there are still letters to the editor waiting to be published.

By Nathan Bergstedt

Originally published in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review

This is a column about profanity and the first amendment. For those uneasy with “coarse language,” this column could be considered offensive.

During our editorial meeting this week, a strange conversation tangent occurred where it was brought up that this past summer, a man was told by police that he needed to put his protest sign away because it had the word “fuck” on it. And we all had a good laugh. But then to my surprise, a debate ensued. One person said that there is a city ordinance against public profanity. I responded by saying that that was against the first amendment. Then it was said that profanity isn’t protected by the first amendment.

The debate ended shortly thereafter, because that’s not what we were meeting about. But I’m not willing to let this go. The freedom of expression is too important to just roll over and say “I’ll say whatever you want me to say.” So if it looks as though there may be an infringement on this most basic of rights, then we must confront it.

There may be a great number of people out there who feel that the first amendment protects only our ideas and beliefs, but does not protect the manner in which we express such ideas. Especially if that manner is considered “dirty” or “obscene” by local and modern standards of etiquette.

But I disagree. The words we choose are directly linked to the ideas and beliefs we wish to express. If we need to boil down our expressions to strictly tame euphemisms, are we truly free to express ourselves?

While you think about that, consider this: what is a swear word?

About 100 years ago, it was considered in bad taste to say the word “breast” in public. Ooh, how crude! My, oh, my, it gives me the vapors just to think it!

Obviously, we’ve outgrown that. What’s more, “breast” is now the preferred term for that portion of the body, and there are now other synonyms for a female’s chest that are deemed crude and obscene. So how is it decided which words are profane and which are acceptable?

Is it the definition of the words? You know, I don’t buy that. Using the example above, “tit” means the same thing as “breast,” and we have no problem with breast. The meaning doesn’t have anything to do with it.

So perhaps it has something to do with the emotional meaning behind the word. This is a little bit better argument, but I still don’t buy it. Let’s say something bad happened to me and I yelled “DAMN IT!” Now let’s imagine I yelled “DARN IT!” instead. The passion and potential hatred isn’t diminished with the exchange of those two middle letters. Does an exchange in phonemes really make my expression less vulgar?

So it’s got to be the cultural connotation, right? Now, living in this culture, we’ve all come to agree that “damn” is more coarse than “darn.” Somehow we’ve agreed that one is a profanity and one is a suitable substitute if we absolutely need to yell something out loud. But at this point, we’re just being told what to say. Maybe “darn” doesn’t begin to express the pain and anger I’m feeling in this hypothetical situation (for the sake of argument, we can say that I was mad because I was told that swearing was now against the law). So once again, if we need to boil down our expressions to strictly tame euphemisms, are we truly free to express ourselves?

If it’s just a matter of being offensive… well, tough shit. None of us have the right to be not offended. Just imagine what that would mean if we did! If you consider the old saying that you can’t make everyone happy all the time, it should be obvious enough that it is impossible to not offend somebody with our ideas, statements, and actions at some point. We do not have the right to not be offended.

But that doesn’t mean that we as citizens of a civil society shouldn’t at least try to not offend. The man with the sign mentioned at the beginning of this column, even I’d say that he wasn’t exercising good taste. It is a word that is culturally agreed upon as vulgar, so he knew full well he was being vulgar in public. In short, we could call him an asshole. But should it be against the law to do what he did?

According to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), if a television news crew came by to record the protest, the station would be subjected to major fines for showing the image of his sign. And the punishment keeps getting higher. In 2006, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act was adopted by congress, which increased the fines for broadcasting “obscene, indecent, or profane material” tenfold. A network can be fined $325,000 for each utterance of a swear word.

I submit that this is a bit outrageous. What’s more, these rules only apply to television and radio. And only that which is picked up by an antennae. If it is over the Internet, or if it is on a cable channel like HBO or Showtime, these rules don’t apply (though according to the FCC, they’re working towards policing these areas in the future). So what are we really accomplishing by attempting to keep people, by law, from saying a handful of words, depending on their context (the word “bitch” for example is both acceptable and dirty, depending on context), in a small variety of forums? Since I’m submitting things, I’d say that the only thing we’re accomplishing is allowing a government entity the power to tell us what to say and think.

Fortunately, the bastion of free expression, the newspaper, is not regulated in any way by the government on what we can and cannot say. So as far as this column is concerned, I might be bringing up a topic and using words that are considered by mainstream society as dirty, and perhaps I’m exercising bad taste by writing this column, but I also forewarned you, dear reader. So if you’re offended, you have no one to blame but yourself (but for the record though, I hope you’re not).