The boundaries of free speech

One of the strongest tenets of our U.S. Constitution is our right to freedom of speech, leading the Bill of Rights along with freedom to worship as we choose. Freedom of speech is among the many things that make me most proud to be an American, as well as a Southerner and Georgian.

Yet, as there should be, there are also boundaries and limitations on that free speech. We have the right of assembly and the right to share thoughts and aspirations, no matter how unpopular those thoughts might be.

Being the parent of a special needs child taught me much more about the feeling of being ostracized, shunned, or treated with disrespect, simply by “being.” It is among the least of our many human traits and the most hurtful of our flaws and foibles but that too is still legal and protected by free speech.

As I have written here before, and likely will again, I stand strongly with Israel as well as with our friends in Ukraine – who simply want to be, and have their land, home, and nation to call their own. When non-aggressors are attacked and oppressed, I will most often stand with the oppressed, as we all should consider.

But our free speech does have limits. I cannot threaten to kill another without consequence, or suggest the violent overthrow of this nation, or advocate the assassination of the president or some other official, without crossing that line. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his accomplished lieutenants during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as earlier Mahatma Gandhi, showed us the means and methods of nonviolent protests to enact or catalyze social change. The marches, sit-ins, chanting and power of group action are all legitimate parts of free speech and protected conduct.

Squatting on private property, vandalizing property, threatening others, acts of violence against others, hate speech and antisemitism are not protected speech.

Advocating death to the Jews, or an end to Israel from sea to sea is also hate speech, is clearly antisemitic and is a call to violence as well as potentially terroristic threats.
Dylann Roof learned—after his senseless murderer of parishioners worshipping in Charleston, South Carolina, following through on his thoughts of deep-seated hatred and racism against those who did not share his race—that he crossed several lines. He paid a price—but for his late-born confession and some degree of repentance—he forfeited his freedom, keeping only his life.

The government and people of Israel have a legitimate quarrel and a war underway with Hamas–a war which they did not ask for. As a loyal and true ally of the United States, we owe them our support, even though we may disagree with some of their methods and tactical choices during this war.

Unfortunately, some of our U.S. college students—who may find themselves in zip ties or handcuffs during the resulting melee of protests that repeatedly cross these lines—are many of the same young men and women who lost more than two years of their lives and full/traditional higher education to the pandemic. Many were freshmen during the 2020 summer of racial justice protests. While they saw positive impacts of that, one might hope that the brighter minds among them also absorbed the downsides and prices paid by those who crossed lines.

College students and other protesters at Emory University, Columbia University, the University of California and elsewhere want to see this war end, innocent lives spared, a divestiture of university endowment investments supportive of Israel, and eventually a home for the Palestinians. And they have many supporters who are not protesting. But assembling to express opposition to U.S. government policy or protest peacefully does not include vandalizing or destroying property, squatting on private property, or continually disturbing the peace by threatening the lives or existence of others.

Congratulations to the graduates of 2024 as you enter the world of employment, adulting and starting your own lives, careers, and families. We hope you have learned before each critical juncture and decision that you must make that your rights to action and speech begin to taper and end as they harm, impact, or impede those same rights held by others. Hold hands, sit down, sit-in, and sing your protest songs or chants, but when you hold your fists high for striking, use weapons or assault the individuals or institutions you disagree with, damage property, or add on other acts of violence, then be ready to pay a price. For some it may be worth that but consider how you might feel about someone else protesting the very existence of you.

Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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