Free Speech Should Feel Good!

The Washington Post has a story about problems faced by high school students who oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

On the one hand, the Post highlights some of the heavy handed tactics of high school administrators who rarely put free speech ahead of maintaining an orderly school. But that’s a problem with speech at schools in general, not something specific to this particular war.

What bugs me, though, is the subtext that runs through the Post articles and other articles I’ve read recently that there is no such thing as free speech unless everyone feels perfectly comfortable in saying anything at all. For example, one student says,

It hurts that people hate you because of your view. It’s scary. They are Americans, and they believe in free speech, unless you disagree.

Another student tells the Washington Post,

I feel like one of very few people who wanted to talk about what America had done in the past and how that might have influenced the attacks. After I did that, I got accused of being anti-American and being a traitor. It’s like no one can say that America is anything other than perfect.

Sorry, you can say and think whatever you want, but the possibility of being hated or called a “traitor” (or worse) sort of comes with the territory. It’s interesting that the main lesson these kids seem to take from this is that they should have the right to say whatever they want, but that other people should not have the right to criticize them.

In fact, such severe criticism is extremely important for a free society. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson can rant on all they want, but they have no right to expect the rest of us to go out of our way to make them feel comfortable when they do so. John Ashcroft can testify before Congress that his critics are helping the terrorists, but he shouldn’t expect folks to roll over and play dead just to salvage his ego.

There’s a good line in the film Casualties of War in which Sean Penn’s platoon leader character realizes that Michael J. Fox’s character is thinking about murdering Penn over the rape of a Vietnamese girl. Penn goes off on Fox screaming that every soldier in Vietnam has a gun and anyone can kill anyone at anytime — and that’s the way it should be.

And here in the United States, everyone has the right to air an opinion against anyone pretty much anytime — and that’s the way it should be.

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