The baseball season is well under way, and there haven’t been that many fights in the stands, except for those fueled by too much beer. Despite the passion fans have for their teams, a general agreement about the rules—three strikes and all that—helps keep order.
Unfortunately, throughout the nation, respect for the most important rules—the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—appears to be breaking down, and the result is that Americans seem more split apart than they have been since the Civil War.
The recent event in Texas, where a group exercised their free speech rights by holding an event in which cartoons that some found offensive were displayed, is a key case in point. Whatever the cultural or artistic merits of the illustrations, or lack thereof, the organizers had every right to express their opinions through the drawings. In the aftermath of an attempt by extremists, which ISIS claims to have been responsible for, to shoot up the gathering, many in the media essentially said that the First Amendment should have been subordinated to the dictates of political correctness, blaming the citizens more than the terrorists.
There was a time when the First Amendment was considered the most sacred of all American rights, limited only in situations such as falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater. The list of exceptions has grown. In a Congressional Research Service report issued last September, legislative attorney Kathleen Ann Ruane wrote:
“…the Court has decided that the First Amendment provides no protection for obscenity, child pornography, or speech that constitutes what has become widely known as ‘fighting words.’ The Court has also decided that the First Amendment provides less than full protection to commercial speech, defamation (libel and slander), speech that may be harmful to children, speech broadcast on radio and television (as opposed to speech transmitted via cable or the Internet), and public employees’ speech. Even speech that enjoys the most extensive First Amendment protection may be subject to “regulations of the time, place, and manner of expression which are content-neutral, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” Furthermore, even speech that enjoys the most extensive First Amendment protection may be restricted on the basis of its content if the restriction passes ‘strict scrutiny’ (i.e., if the government shows that the restriction serves ‘to promote a compelling interest’ and is ‘the least restrictive means to further the articulated interest’).”
While some topics, such as that which may be harmful to children such as child pornography, are obvious common sense restrictions that even the framers of the First Amendment would approve of, the growing list of exceptions is worrisome. An example of how far down this road some in government are willing to travel to limit free speech is troubling. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) tried to limit paid political speech through a bill in the U.S. Senate. Colleges seek to restrict students seeking to hand out copies of the Bill of Rights to just a few places on campus. Scientists who question the concept of man-made climate change are ostracized and silenced by their own colleagues.
For the first time, that great advance in free speech, the internet, is now under the control of a government bureaucracy.
Major challenges to freedom don’t necessarily come with great upheavals. They are more likely to occur bit by bit, bureaucratic rule after bureaucratic rule, until barely the memory of the rights that used to be cherished are left.