Free Speech Doesn’t Mean Freedom from Criticism

The latest gaffe by the Republican presidential nominee makes me realize that many Americans (including the candidate) misunderstand freedom of speech. The First Amendment precludes the government from censoring speech or throwing a U.S. citizen in jail for the content of his/her article, book, film, blog post, town square tirade, etc. (with a some exceptions regarding national security).

Beyond that, you’re on your own. The First Amendment does not prevent the government (or anyone else) from criticizing the content of your speech — and it certainly doesn’t obligate the government to support and defend your crazy rant.

In my reporter days, I endured the occasional scathing communication from mayors, city council members, county supervisors, school board members and at least one state university president. Turns out government officials have free speech rights, too. I never interpreted their criticism of my work as an attack on my right to free speech.  Nobody ever tried to throw me in jail (over something I’d written, anyway.)

Similarly, the statement by U.S. diplomats that Romney recently criticized didn’t repudiate the right of some yahoo to make an anti-Muslim video. It disavowed the video’s content.

On Tuesday night, Romney’s attacked what he called an “apology” of the American-made, anti-Muslim video that prompted protests in Egypt and Libya, and now elsewhere in the Muslim world. Radicals used the video as a totally lame excuse to attack the U.S. embassy in Libya and kill four Americans.

Prior to the attack, U.S. embassy officials in Cairo attempted to calm the angry mob outside their walls by posting the following on Twitter: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

Note that it didn’t say, “That guy had no right to make that video and we’re going to have him arrested!” Nevertheless, Romney later said that the statement suggested “that there’s something wrong with the right of free speech.”

Um, no, it didn’t.

First of all, he obviously failed to consider that the officials were in potential danger and maybe trying to stave off an attack. Regardless, the embassy’s statement was completely appropriate. In America, you can say it, but the government doesn’t have to support it. I mean, really, should the U.S. government stand behind every dumb thing Americans say, write, record or film? Are city officials obligated to remain silent when the Ku Klux Klan marches through town? No!

Free speech means that we can say whatever we want, even if the government hates what we say. And that’s a great message to send to oppressed people in oppressed lands where we’d like to see free societies flourish. That point is not lost on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. According to the AP on Wednesday:

“Clinton says the film is ‘disgusting and reprehensible.’ …But Clinton says the U.S. would never stop Americans from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful.”

What she said.

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Am I Better Off? Yes, Actually – but That’s Not the Point

Am I’m better off than I was four years ago? Yes, actually. I am better off, and so are many of my friends and family members. I am grateful for that – we are blessed – but in terms of the presidential campaign, it doesn’t really matter. My personal better offness won’t determine how I cast my ballot on Nov. 6. And, frankly, I’m a little offended that the Republicans think I’m so selfish.

They’re asking it, of course, in hopes of replicating President Reagan’s 1980 electoral success. But the current question rings shallow and tinny compared to Reagan’s inquiry backs them. It’s a different time with a different set of challenges.

I remember when Reagan first asked his now-famous question during a debate against President Carter (I was a mere child, of course). In 1980, the country was in a dark place. Americans were still divided by racial and gender issues (remember the Equal Rights Amendment?), still bitter from Watergate, still sore from losing a war. Pile on the OPEC oil embargo/skyrocketing gas prices/lines at the gas pump, out-of-control inflation, enormous interest rates (hard to imagine now that 12 percent was considered a good mortgage rate), the Three Mile Island catastrophe, the Iran hostage crisis … yeah, things were bad.

We were depressed, not only economically, but psychologically. Americans didn’t feel good about themselves. And when we looked to President Carter – slow talking, slightly hunched and cardigan-clad – we got more depressed.

Romney isn’t asking the same question that Reagan asked 32 years ago.

So when the confident, strapping Reagan asked, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” the question resonated with Americans. It worked for him. But, then again, anything would have worked for him. He could have tap danced on stage while juggling rubber chickens and beat Carter.

As bad as things may seem now, our collective emotional state stands taller than it did in 1980. Sure, the economy sucks and people are out of work, but we’re in a healthier state of mind. We haven’t been beat down emotionally by the humiliation of waiting in long lines to fill up our gas tanks, images of hooded hostages or the crush of constant price hikes. Times are tough, but so are we. We know things will get better.

Moreover, the GOP isn’t even asking the same question that Reagan asked in 1980. The entire quote from the debate goes as such: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?” He meant the plural “you.” Are you, your family, your neighbors, your community, your country better off?

In 2012, the truncated version wielded by Republicans narrows the focus to individual financial well-being. It feels selfish. It feels icky. Selfishly icky. And it won’t resonate with voters because I don’t believe that short-term financial self-interest drives people to the polls. Why? Because we’re not that stupid. Voters are smart enough to know that the White House resident won’t suddenly and dramatically alter their lives for better or for worse. The president doesn’t control the free-market economy or determine the unemployment rate. He can’t force your boss to give you a raise. He doesn’t have a magic wand. Voters vote to set a course for the country, whether it’s the one envisioned by the Dems, the GOP or an alternative party – not to ensure their own immediate better offness.

I’m done with school, yet I support affordable higher education for my nieces and nephews benefit. I have good health insurance provided by my employer, but I want all Americans to have access to fair and affordable health insurance coverage. I probably won’t be around to watch melted ice caps swallow islands and engulf coastal regions, but I’d like to help prevent it from happening. These are the issues that motivate me to vote. The way I mark my ballot has little to do with my own personal situation four years from now – and I believe that most American voters would say the same thing.

So when Gov. Romney asks if I’m better off than I was four years ago, my answer is, “Yes, but that’s not the point.”