February 4, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

Freedom of Speech

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have these three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and the prudence never to practice either of them.

Mark Twain (1835-1910 )

There is an old saying that freedom of speech does not include the freedom to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. There are other limits to free speech, particularly where children are involved. However, the courts in our country have been reluctant to limit freedom of speech except where speaking freely posed a mortal danger to people.

During the Joe McCarthy era, laws were passed that made organizations illegal that preached the overthrow of the government by force and violence. I thought that it was an unwarranted restriction on free speech. It was used to ban the Communist party. The Communist party was no threat to our government since their preaching fell largely on deaf ears. I believe that banning any party is dangerous, even a party that is as repugnant to me as the Nazi party.

The American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU) has the protection of free speech as its objective and it has defended the right of free speech of some pretty revolting organizations. The word "revolting" can be taken in two ways, and the ACLU defends both.

If a group of people wants to change our government, they have to do it by legal means. The framers of the constitution deliberately made it a slow and cumbersome process because rapid change can be a disaster.

There is one restriction that must be placed on free speech, and that is that freedom of speech does not include freedom of action. No one in this country is free to forcibly overthrow the government, rotten as it may be at times. Freedom of advocacy does not mean freedom to revolt. In other words, the minute an organization arms itself, it is no longer under the protection of the constitution and, consequently, the law.

The Civil War was fought because the south seceded from the union. Slavery was a secondary issue. Would it have made a difference if the south had been allowed to set up an independent nation? No one knows. However, the war settled the issue as to whether it would be permitted or not. There are arguments on both sides of the issue. To see the struggle in a modern country which is not willing to fight a war to preserve the union, one has only to look across the border to Canada and it's continual conflict with the French speaking population of Quebec. The French speakers have not armed themselves and I doubt that the Canadian government would tolerate an armed insurrection. In their last plebiscite for an independent Quebec, the French speakers lost.

I think that it is generally accepted, and the courts would agree, that freedom of speech does not mean freedom of insurrection and that free speech ends when the speaker has a gun, or an organization has many people with many guns. The so-called "militias" are not militias at all. Militias are governmental organizations of local governments. The National Guard is a militia. The people who call themselves militias are illegal organizations. The constitution does not support their existence, regardless of what the National Rifle Association seems to believe.

With regard to David Koresch and his Branch Davidians who died as a consequence of a fire during a government raid, people seem to have forgotten that they were stockpiling arms. It was not a government attack on an unarmed group. Had they merely functioned as a religion, no one would have interfered. There have been all kinds of flaky religions in this country and the government has left them alone. This was not necessarily true of their neighbors. Whether the government acted properly is still a matter for debate. However, the government had every right to intervene since it was an armed group.

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