Better Not Yell Fire!
By Patrick F. Cannon
The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States – the first-ever national written constitution – has been a damn nuisance from the start. Here it is, in case you have forgotten it:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
It’s part of the Bill of Rights, which went into effect in 1791. As it was the first of 10 amendments, James Madison and the other folks responsible obviously thought it might be the most important. It has certainly been one of the most argued over by our fellow citizens and the courts. And still is.
While the meaning of other amendments may be subject to debate – the Second Amendment, with its confusion about just what the phrase “A well-regulated Militia” actually means in relation to the “right to keep and bear Arms.” is a good example – I have always thought that the First Amendment simply means what it says. Read it again. What can “make no law” mean other than, well, make no law. Nevertheless, some people have always had a problem with some or all it.
There are still folks who think religious freedom means the freedom to be a Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian or (more recently and grudgingly) a Roman Catholic. They’re not at all sure about Jews, and they wish Muslims would go back to the desert where they belong. The current president, although I doubt he believes in anything except himself, seems to be their spiritual (sorry about that) leader.
It’s that second clause, however, that seems the most confusing to many of our fellow citizens, including President Trump. Notice that “freedom of speech, or of the press” are grouped together. With a few exceptions – yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre, advocating the violent overthrow of the government, knowingly spreading lies in public about your sister-in-law – you can pretty much say what you want. That doesn’t mean that anyone is going to pay attention to you. I have always thought that the corollary of you getting to say what you want, is my right to ignore you.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to work for everyone. For example, on university campuses throughout the Republic, what I would describe as the “Marxist Left” has decided that it isn’t enough to simply ignore speech that they find distasteful; they must actively prevent it from taking place at all. If a conservative speaker is invited by the university or an affiliated group, these groups will raise an outcry, and often have succeeded in getting the invitation withdrawn by craven university administrators. When this fails, they will show up at the event and prevent the speaker from being heard, even if it means resorting to violence.
Although they would deny this characterization, this is of course a classic totalitarian tactic. It was used on the right by Mussolini and Hitler, and on the left by Stalin, Mao, Castro, Chavez and the various Kims. The justification has always been the same – we must prevent the average schmo from being contaminated by false ideologies. Despite their demonstrable failures, the ideas of such luminaries as Marx and Marcuse refuse to die.
Widespread distrust of freedom of the press also refuses to die, particularly among politicians. I’m quite aware that even the most respected newspapers make mistakes, and may even show bias in some of their coverage. But in general, newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune have strict standards of accuracy for their news columns. Politicians do not like to be held accountable – President Obama didn’t like it, and President Trump actually hates it. He has convinced his deluded followers that most of what is written about him is “fake news.” He thus subscribes to that other classic totalitarian dogma – say a lie often enough and some people will begin to think it’s true.
He thinks the press is out to get him, and they are. As they should. As they should with all politicians, regardless of party. It particularly rankles President Trump that the Washington Post has kept track of his demonstrable lies or misstatements. As of March 4, the total was 9,014. Well, I guess he really is the greatest.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon