"If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."— Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
There was a time in this country, back when the British were running things, that if you spoke your mind and it ticked off the wrong people, you'd soon find yourself in jail for offending the king.
Reacting to this injustice, when it was time to write the Constitution, America's founders argued for a Bill of Rights, of which the First Amendment protects the right to free speech. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was very clear about the fact that he wrote the First Amendment to protect the minority against the majority.
What Madison meant by minority is "offensive speech."
Unfortunately, we don't honor that principle as much as we should today. In fact, we seem to be witnessing a politically correct philosophy at play, one shared by both the extreme left and the extreme right, which aims to stifle all expression that doesn't fit within their parameters of what they consider to be "acceptable" speech.
There are all kinds of labels put on such speech—it's been called politically incorrect speech, hate speech, offensive speech, and so on—but really, the message being conveyed is that you don't have a right to express yourself if certain people or groups don't like or agree with what you are saying.
Hence, we have seen the caging of free speech in recent years, through the use of so-called "free speech zones" on college campuses and at political events, the requirement of speech permits in parks and community gatherings, and the policing of online forums.
Clearly, this elitist, monolithic mindset is at odds with everything America is supposed to stand for.
Indeed, we should be encouraging people to debate issues and air their views. Instead, by muzzling free speech, we are contributing to a growing underclass of Americans—many of whom have been labeled racists, rednecks and religious bigots—who are being told that they can't take part in American public life unless they "fit in."
Remember, the First Amendment acts as a steam valve. It allows people to speak their minds, air their grievances and contribute to a larger dialogue that hopefully results in a more just world. When there is no steam valve to release the pressure, frustration builds, anger grows and people become more volatile and desperate to force a conversation.
The attempt to stifle certain forms of speech is where we go wrong.
In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is "a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment...that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable." For example, it is not a question of whether the Confederate flag represents racism but whether banning it leads to even greater problems, namely, the loss of freedom in general.
Along with the constitutional right to peacefully (and that means non-violently) assemble, the right to free speech allows us to challenge the government through protests and demonstrations and to attempt to change the world around us—for the better or the worse—through protests and counterprotests.
As always, knowledge is key.
The following Constitutional Q&A, available in more detail at The Rutherford Institute (www.rutherford.org), is a good starting point.
Q: WHAT LAWS GIVE ME THE RIGHT TO PROTEST?
A: The First Amendment prohibits the government from "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Protesting is an exercise of these constitutional rights because it involves speaking out, by individual people or those assembled in groups, about matters of public interest and concern.
Q: WHERE CAN I ENGAGE IN PROTEST ACTIVITY?
A: The right to protest generally extends to places that are owned and controlled by the government, although not all government-owned property is available for exercising speech and assembly rights. However, beyond public or government property, a person cannot claim a First Amendment right to protest and demonstrate on property that is privately owned by someone else. This also applies to private property that is generally open to the public, such as a shopping mall or shopping center, although these areas sometimes allow demonstrations and other free speech activity with permission from the owner. You are also entitled to engage in protest activities on land you own. The Supreme Court has ruled that the government may not forbid homeowners from posting signs on their property speaking out on a political or social issue.