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Kenneth Hardin: Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences

It’s been said if you speak when you’re angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever live to regret. There’s been quite a bit of misguided, misinformed and misdirected regrets floating around lately. Everyone believes in the right to free speech as long as you agree with what they have to say or don’t engage in intelligent counter discourse. So, is speech really free? If I listen to all those who don’t agree with my definition, I’ll need to get on an equal payment plan to finish this article.

I’ve heard so many people bemoaning lately their right to free speech has been violated, trampled upon and snatched away. It’s like our Constitution has been rewritten in crayon and posted on the front of a refrigerator. I was so concerned; I went online to see if there was new legislation. I was relieved to find that although the U.S. Supreme Court struggles to narrow down what exactly constitutes protected speech; the First Amendment does still protect it. I’m not a political science, law or governmental relations expert. I’m not even close to “Big Bang Theory” cast intelligence, but I understand that just because you have the right to say and do stupid things, doesn’t mean you are free from the repercussions of your words and actions.

I took my kindergarten graduation diploma off the wall and used it for motivation as I conducted online research into this tricky area that is causing so much pain. I reviewed sites that explained in elementary terms what rights the First Amendment provides and the others it doesn’t cover. Although it was fairly easy to follow, I still longed for simpler sing-song responses similar to the School House Rock interludes between Bugs Bunny and Speed Racer cartoons.

No matter how deeply I looked, I never saw the words “God given right,” as I’ve read in some angry responses. In my humble understanding of such a prodigious undertaking, it prohibits the government from passing legislation that establishes an official religion or preferring one religion over another. Even though I’ve been castigated for not walking in lock step with the dominant religious belief system of a white male patriarchal society, I’ve never felt my rights were violated. I simply accepted that whatever people called Him or Her or if they chose not to at all, they should be free to engage or disengage from any religious dogma.

I grew none the wearier as I soldiered on to find out what happened to free speech and double clicked on a webpage that explained freedom of expression.

The site revealed that freedom of speech allows individuals to express themselves without interference from the government. There is that “government” word again. It went on to say that the Supreme Court requires the government to provide justification for interference where it attempts to regulate speech content. I felt an immediate sense of relief because it absolved me from accusations I personally interfered with anyone’s right, and places it all on those pesky government folk.

Next, I reached back over 30 years, relying upon my solid B- average high school social studies acumen, to understand this constitutional guarantee is not a divine gift from a generous deity, but more of a protection from heavy-handed government intrusion. Congress, not Kenneth, shall make no law abridging free speech.

While exhaling and reveling in the fact that I had not personally inhibited anyone’s right to speak their mind or conscience, I was troubled by the memory of an incident as a high school senior and co-editor of our school newspaper/yearbook. I dug through my papers and found original copies of an editorial I had written in 1982, and the response our principal provided as to why he wouldn’t allow it to be published in our school newspaper.

I now understand the pain associated with having your freedom of speech violated. As I read over my youthful words of free expression of how our new principal, who went on to spend 30 years at this school before retiring greatly admired, was turning it into a Prison, I chuckled recalling my misguided, misinformed and misdirected anger at his “governmental” censorship back then. I have no hard hearted feelings or regrets today, and carry no baggage forward from this traumatic experience.

I realize the color of the sky in the world in which I live in is no different from anyone else’s.

Kenneth Hardin lives in Salisbury.

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