Free speech protects your enemies, too

By By Ryan Shattuck

By Ryan Shattuck

In his 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Noam Chomsky boldly states: “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”

To be fair, Chomsky is a libertarian socialist; therefore, everything he says about freedom of speech is probably wrong. Supporting freedom of speech for views that one despises? Radical! Liberal! Un-American! The only people who deserve the inalienable right to freedom of speech are those with whom I agree!

Oh, and Nancy Grace.

Freedom of speech is a curious thing. It forbids you from yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theatre but allows you to yell “I’m tired of watching Oscar nominated actors in fat suits!” if that movie happens to be “Norbit.” Democrats demand freedom of speech when it involves sex. Republicans demand freedom of speech when it involves religion. Third-party candidates demand freedom of speech when it involves neither sex nor religion, i.e. Ralph Nader. How can so many people interpret freedom of speech to be so many different things? Why isn’t freedom of speech as well-understood as that other First Amendment, the never-controversial freedom of religion?

Being an opinion columnist means having to traverse the fine line that separates freedom of speech and freedom of who-the-hell-asked-you on a regular basis. By definition, the opinion columnist is paid to share an opinion, yet it is this very opinion-sharing that often immerses the opinion columnist in controversy. No one wants to read the opinions of a columnist if the opinions are bland and unoriginal, yet no one wants to read the opinions of a columnist if the opinions are controversial and against that which we believe. Employing the freedom of speech as an opinion columnist often means being damned if you do, and damned if you aren’t anti-abortion, pro-gun rights, anti-gay marriage, and pro-Iraq War.

I address this specific point because of the comments several readers made in reference to a recent article written by a fellow Chronicle columnist on the topic of welfare. This unnamed columnist, to whom I will give the pseudonym of “Tiara C. Fuller” (which ironically also happens to be, her real name), committed the grievous crime and unpardonable sin in her article by doing that which she is paid to do — express her opinions. In response to her article, letters to the editor requested that “Tiara” be fired and message-board comments suggested she find a new career. In short, just an average Monday.

Did this opinion columnist cross the freedom-of-speech line by simply expressing her opinions on welfare? Was her opinion really as unforgivable as that of Mel Richards Imus Gibson, the celebrity who gained infamy by defaming Jewish African-American basketball players while drunkenly claiming to own Malibu — all while performing in a comedy club?

I say no. While I strongly disagree with the opinions of Fuller and believe her opinions are as valid as an uneducated can of soup (as opposed to an educated can of soup — regardless of the fact that it’s on welfare), I believe that she, not only as an opinion columnist but also as an American citizen, has as much right to voice her opinion as I do to voice my opinion against her opinion. Dissent is good, and disagreeing is healthy. It is through the opposition of opinions that society finds balance.

If everyone agreed with me, this would be a lame and boring United States of America. If everyone agreed with Fuller this would be the United States of the Privileged Caucasian. If everyone agreed with Nancy Grace, this would be the United States of Anna Nicole Smith’s Death: More After the Break.

Columnists and journalists who commit fraud, such as former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, should be fired. But those who simply express their opinion — correct or not — are protected by the First Amendment. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall once famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” While I certainly have no immediate plans to give my life for Fuller (only because I have plans for Labor Day), I do however support her right to freedom of speech.

Whether preaching about Christianity, promoting the omphalos hypothesis or simply blogging about the eerie fact that Steve Jobs becomes Kurt Russell when he grows out his hair, the First Amendment protects all beliefs and the right to share all opinions. Everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, whether we agree or not.

Maybe Noam Chomsky was on to something after all.

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