The first amendment is one of our most important freedoms here in the US. It’s part of what defines us as a people and as a democracy—but it’s also one of our biggest controversies. How far does that freedom really extend when someone begins to abuse it? And should we deal with those people by restricting their freedom of speech, or through some other way? Today we’re going to take a look at the legal limitations of free speech, but also what we can and should do when someone “crosses a line,” regardless of whether it’s against the law. “Cancel culture” is one hugely debated response to that issue, and we’ll touch briefly on that towards the end.
There are actually several defined exceptions for free speech specifically designed to prevent people from abusing it—the problem is that they aren’t very well defined. Some of them work alright for the most part, like the limitation for inciting a riot. For example, you can’t legally shout “fire!” in a public place if there’s no fire, and it also applies to stirring up trouble or violence for other reasons. You may remember, for example, that after the riot at the capitol building a few months ago, there was some discussion as to whether then-president Trump was guilty of inciting the incident at one of his events.
There have been a couple of provisions made within the first amendment to require a rating board for things like music and cinema over the past century, but probably the most indicative of the greater problem is the limitation on obscenity. This was passed in 1957 and essentially provides for censorship of something that is utterly without redeeming social value. Naturally, people were curious to know how “redeeming social value” would be determined, but the only answer given was, “You’ll know it when you see it.”
The basic problem I see with this is that if true, there would be very little reason to have the law in the first place since everyone would be in agreement about whether or not something has value. On the other hand, if it’s not true, then with nothing more to go on the law would be impossible to fairly enforce—and that does seem to have been the case. In the years since it was passed the fines levied for violations vary wildly from case to case. One person might pass totally free while another is heavily fined for the same thing. Because it turns out that everyone doesn’t know it when they see it, because obscenity is subjective and different people can have vastly different tolerances and sensitivities.
So when something does appear to be controversial, offensive, or hateful, I see two basic ways of dealing with it. The first is for people of all perspectives to come together in a spirit of goodwill, and to reach a resolution through debate, study, and research. This is obviously the ideal, and as with any ideal, it’s much easier said than done.
Another possibility that we’re hearing a lot about today is “cancel culture.” Essentially, this means responding to a perceived obscenity or other issue by attempting to harass or exclude that person, especially on social media. I’ve also heard it phrased as simply trying to “draw negative attention” to someone that they feel has deserved it, but I personally believe this is only adding to the problem.
Now, I’m not saying we should tolerate anything a person might say, no matter how harmful or offensive, but I do think that in the vast majority of cases, taking judgment and punishment into our own hands will only escalate the situation and make any kind of real resolution even more difficult. Nine times out of ten, it’s better to try and engage with people in a spirit of love and peace, even if what they’re saying goes against everything you believe.
The exception, I would say, is if what they’re saying poses some sort of clear danger (like inciting a riot, for example) or if it is something that you specifically cannot be around for your own emotional wellbeing. My wife, Hope, has been through periods where she had to distance herself from people close to her because of what they did to her emotionally. The key, I think, is that she did it for both their sakes, to preserve what relationship there was when she knew that any interaction between them, at that time, would only make things worse.
Ultimately, I guess I would say that the best we can do is to put a spirit of peace, love, and goodwill first, and measure our own interactions based on that, rather than on advancing our own particular perspective. Because once enough people are doing that, we’ll be able to have truly meaningful conversations.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!