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The · Psychohistorian

The first amendment

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... of the Constitution of the United States consists of only 45 words. The part on freedom of speech is even simpler, a mere ten words: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." What could be clearer?

The Supreme Court ruled in two cases involving these ten simple words on Monday. One might hope, given the Supreme Court's position as the guardian of the Constitution, that at least some of the justices would come down solidly on the side of free speech both times. After all, freedom is what our society is all about, isn't it?

Any such hopes would be dashed. The court split 5-4 along the same lines both times - but in one case, it was the five that preferred to restrict speech, and in the other, it was the four. The opinions were full of phrases like "potentially disruptive", "unique setting", "express advocacy", and "political pragmatism", all purporting to justify exceptions - abridgements, if you will - to the freedom of speech. Each of the nine opinions is cogent and logical, but given how each justice seemed happy to restrict speech in some circumstances more than in others, it's hard to escape the impression that the justices were voting based on whether they agreed with the speech in question, rather than on whether the Constitution should protect it.

There is a saying, attributed to Voltaire, that I heard a lot in high school - "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". At the time, it seemed nonsensical to me - if one disagreed with somebody, why wouldn't one just shut him up if the opportunity arose?

Now, I am not so sure. In this time of polarization, people seem far too willing to ignore alternate views rather than listen to them. It's bad enough that we're ignoring people when we might learn from them; how much worse would it be for us to prevent them from speaking at all?


The opinions:
Morse v Frederick ("Bong hits for Jesus")
FEC v WRTL ("oppose the filibuster")

The first amendment:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or 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."
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