Freedom of Speech: Can We Take a Breath and Be More Accurate?

There is much to talk about with the events of the last month, but I’m going to focus in on the abuse of the phrase “free speech.”

Last month the movie The Interview was roundly criticized by North Korea. This is not surprising as the point of the movie is the assassination of their leader Kim Jong Un. It was produced by Columbia Pictures (owned by Sony) and it became clear that its Christmas debut was problematic: many Americans feared seeing the movie because of threats of violence against the theaters. Because of that the film was pulled.

Almost anyone could have predicted the backlash. Threats of revenge, realistic or not, created pressure to on Sony to cancel the premier. Then another backlash caused Sony to release it and make it available for download. Many felt that Sony’s decision to block the release was an attack on free speech.

As an American I applaud the conversation but I am troubled by some of the debate. The idea of Sony’s action was attack on free speech made it seem that the decision by Sony was somehow unconstitutional.

As this discussion was quieting we read, to our horror, of the assassination in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo is a satiric periodical that has parodied, among others, Jesus, the Pope, the prophet Mohammed, and others. Many of us find some of these images troubling and even offensive and, as a result, don’t subscribe. But a few terrorists, who claim to be Muslims, decided that these images allowed them to murder.

This, also, created a backlash where many of us expressed our support for Charlie Hebdo and satirists over the world.

I support neither North Korea nor those who killed the good people in Paris (which also included 2 police officers and 4 hostages in a neighboring Jewish market) but I don’t think these are attacks on freedom of speech. Please understand that I am, in no way, excusing or supporting these attacks.

When we think of “freedom of speech” we normally think of the Constitution and we all revere what it protects. But it protects only one thing: you cannot be arrested, prosecuted, or imprisoned for expressing your opinion. It does not protect you from the consequences of your speech. In other words, if I say something hurtful or offensive to my wife, I’m not protected from her reaction. It only means I can’t be arrested.

If I choose to view the movie or read Charlie Hebdo, I’m not celebrating freedom of speech. The Constitution has nothing to say about this. But I will be making a statement about freedom from fear. The phrase “freedom from fear” should ring a bell: In his State of the Union in 1941 President Roosevelt spoke of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom of fear. A few months later the artist Norman Rockwell painted his interpretation of freedom from fear onto canvas.

I celebrate both freedom of speech and freedom from fear and am grateful that I can live in a place and time where I can do both. But as a student of American Constitutional history I feel a need to make a distinction between the two. Maybe nobody except me cares about this, but these freedoms are not the same thing.

If you choose to see the movie or buy the magazine, know you are celebrating freedom from fear and not freedom of speech.

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