John Andrist: Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee


“It’s a free country; I can say what I want!” Indeed, almost all of us would say we strongly believe in the concept of free speech.

Even as kids we learned to use that free country, free speech argument. Of course, in our generation it was pretty well bred into us that there would be consequences if we didn’t sit down and shut up when we were told.

But the truth is most of us are all too often willing and eager to set free speech limits for others.

Perhaps the most egregious these days are educational institutions. They are the first to stand up and defend academic freedom — and too often the first to silence others by protesting speakers who have a contrary point of view.

Government has the most sneaky way of stopping free speech. It uses regulatory powers to silence critics. The Obama administration famously used the IRS and its auditors to go after enemies. Nixon tried the same.

Federal prosecutors seem to always be able to silence folks and families they target.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]…the truth is most of us are all too often willing and eager to set free speech limits for others.[/mks_pullquote]

In one famous disclosure in Wisconsin authorities targeted the home of an out-of-town couple in a evidential raid where they sequestered a teenage son, hauled items out of the house, and told the frightened teen if he told anybody what they had done he would go to jail.

It was at the time the Dairy State was trying to kill off Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Eventually, the Wisconsin Supreme Court stopped the witch hunt.

Other tactics are blackmail and boycotts to gag the opposition. If you’ve ever had a federal agency come to your business door you know how intimidating they can be.

Courts impose gag orders with impunity. And protesters? These days they gather every day under the umbrella of First Amendment protection to silence somebody else’s First Amendment rights.

Is free speech silencing and intimidation high on your radar list? Probably not, until it is your vocal cords that are squeezed.

Of course, it has been well established that free speech doesn’t extend to a right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.

And just last week a court ruled a woman was guilty of coaxing a man to commit suicide.

But we must also understand that we are always on unstable ground when we deny any person a right which we covet for ourselves.

I’ve never been a fan of organizing protests and boycotts for the intention of silencing a person, or even a corporate entity.

Freedom can’t be free unless it is a principle extended to all of us.

Great kids on the loose

It’s quite common for church youth groups to spend a week working on a service project far away from home.

It fills two common needs — the thirst for travel and adventure and the need to feed our desire to serve others.

Nine Belfield young people recently went one step better. They broke tradition and fulfilled their week of service, but stayed home.

They hauled gravel, mowed and cleaned their town, built ramps and tables for the Belfield food pantry, weeded around headstones at the town cemetery, stained boards on the police department building, and painted in the senior citizen center.

Pretty darn cool, if you ask me.

Guilty, no doubt, but . . .?

The Bill Cosby trial has ended with a hung jury, which means there probably will be yet another trial. I don’t know why, but I find myself pulling for him.

I’m not naive. I suspect he did some evil things, and he broke my heart. He probably deserves no mercy.

But neither do I. How about you?

When  you measure a person for what they are, rather than what they are not, Cosby will always stand pretty tall.

He’s an old man now, and almost certainly is no longer a danger to others. I’m thankful I didn’t have to sit on his jury. The verdict will leave no winners.

Whether he goes to jail or is set free he will live out his life knowing he was something less than he could have been.

But to some degree that is the fate for all of us. Grace is a human concept as well as a religious one.