Original commentary by John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute on March 3, 2014.
Living in a representative republic means that each person has the right to take a stand for what they think is right, whether that means marching outside the halls of government, wearing clothing with provocative statements, or simply holding up a sign. That’s what the First Amendment is supposed to be about.
Unfortunately, as I show in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, through a series of carefully crafted legislative steps and politically expedient court rulings, government officials have managed to disembowel this fundamental freedom, rendering it with little more meaning than the right to file a lawsuit against government officials. In fact, if the following court rulings are anything to go by, the First Amendment has, for all intents and purposes, become an exercise in futility.
On February 26, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 9-0 ruling, held that anti-nuclear activist John Denis Apel could be prosecuted for staging a protest on a public road at an Air Force base, free speech claims notwithstanding, because the public road is technically government property.
Insisting that it’s not safe to display an American flag in an American public school, on February 27, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school officials were justified when they ordered three students at a California public high school to cover up their patriotic apparel emblazoned with American flags or be sent home on the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo, allegedly out of a concern that it might offend Hispanic students.
On February 28, a federal court dismissed Marine veteran Brandon Raub’s case. Despite the fact that Raub was interrogated by Secret Service agents, handcuffed, arrested, subjected to a kangaroo court, and locked up in a mental facility for posting song lyrics and statements on Facebook critical of the government—a clear violation of his free speech rights—the court ruled that Raub’s concerns about the government were far-fetched and merited such treatment.
There you have it: three rulings in three days, from three different levels of the American judicial system, and all of them aimed at suppressing free speech. Yet what most people fail to understand is that these cases are not merely about the citizenry’s right to freely express themselves. Rather, these cases speak to the citizenry’s right to express their concerns about their government to their government, in a time, place and manner best suited to ensuring that those concerns are heard.
The First Amendment gives every American the right to “petition his government for a redress of grievances.” This amounts to so much more than filing a lawsuit against the government. It works hand in hand with free speech to ensure, as the Five Freedoms Project reports, “that our leaders hear, even if they don’t listen to, the electorate. Though public officials may be indifferent, contrary, or silent participants in democratic discourse, at least the First Amendment commands their audience.”
The challenge we face today, however, is that government officials have succeeded in insulating themselves from their constituents, making it increasingly difficult for average Americans to make themselves seen or heard by those who most need to hear what “we the people” have to say. Indeed, while lobbyists mill in and out of the White House and the homes and offices of Congressmen, the American people are kept at a distance through free speech zones, electronic town hall meetings, and security barriers. And those who dare to breach the gap—even through silent forms of protest—are arrested for making their voices heard.
Free speech can certainly not be considered “free” when expressive activities across the nation are being increasingly limited, restricted to so-called free speech zones, or altogether blocked, including in front of the Supreme Court’s own plaza. If citizens cannot stand out in the open on a public road and voice their disapproval of their government, its representatives and its policies, without fearing prosecution, then the First Amendment with all its robust protections for free speech, assembly and the right to petition one’s government for a redress of grievances is little more than window-dressing on a store window—pretty to look at but serving little real purpose.
Clearly, the government has no interest in hearing what “we the people” have to say. Yet if Americans are not able to peacefully assemble for expressive activity outside of the halls of government or on public roads on which government officials must pass, the First Amendment has lost all meaning. If we cannot stand silently outside of the Supreme Court or the Capitol or the White House, our ability to hold the government accountable for its actions is threatened, and so are the rights and liberties that we cherish as Americans. And if we cannot proclaim our feelings about the government, no matter how controversial, on our clothing, or to passersby, or to the users of the world wide web, then the First Amendment really has become an exercise in futility.
George Orwell, always relevant to our present age, warned against this intolerance for free speech in 1945:
The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them... The notion that certain opinions cannot safely be allowed a hearing is growing. It is given currency by intellectuals who confuse the issue by not distinguishing between democratic opposition and open rebellion, and it is reflected in our growing indifference to tyranny and injustice abroad. And even those who declare themselves to be in favour of freedom of opinion generally drop their claim when it is their own adversaries who are being prosecuted.