The New Free Speech Culture

Free speech is fantastic. I use it all the time. Just the other day I used it to question the veracity of statements made by the mayor of Los Angeles regarding the #OccupyLA movement. I think I dragged a comparison to a blind squirrel into it.

Ahem. Anyway.

Free speech. We have it, we love it, and we jealously defend it…even when the speech in question is completely ridiculous. Hilariously putting words into a presidential candidate’s mouth? Mercifully allowed, at least in the context of the linked video. First amendment protections go beyond shielding the absurd, however. Racism? Allowed. Homophobia? Allowed. Unadulterated ignorance? Allowed. As blogger Ed Morrissey famously put it, there is no jackass exception to the first amendment.

There is, however, a line that no person can cross and expect to be protected. The line I’m dealing with today involves threats against another human being. Lately, we’ve seen a lot go down in the way of social upheaval. We’re struggling economically. We’re fighting for our civil rights. We’re #occupying things left and right, and with this cultural foment comes an inescapable desire to speak our minds about everything from religion to the alleged frequenters of our congressman’s bedroom.

On that note…some dude hopped on Facebook and threatened to murder South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley:

When 26-year-old Nathan Shafer heard about the arrests of 19 Occupy Columbia members outside the State House last Wednesday, he did what lots of people do when they get angry — he vented about it on the Internet. He saw Gov. Haley’s Facebook post about the arrests and Haley’s comment that she “appreciate[s] freedom of speech,” and that’s when authorities say Shafer crossed the line.

“I hope someone murders you before I do,” Shafer said he commented on the post. “How’s that for freedom of speech?”


Full disclosure: I adore Nikki Haley; I supported her through her entire campaign. That being said, I’d have the same reaction if someone said this to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, or any other public figure I don’t tend to appreciate. Beside the point. What I’m worried about is this everyman’s characterization of what he said as “a point about free speech.”

No. No no no. These people make my head numb, and to be perfectly honest I blame social media. All of social media. And the internet. Also Al Gore (he asked for it.) Social media has changed a lot of things, created a lot of things, and deconstructed a lot of things, but with all the changed/created/deconstructed wonderfulness came what I believe is one of the most annoying and potentially disastrous consequences of information on demand: instant “expertise”. Only I put “expertise” in snark quotes because any expertise gained from social media that doesn’t involve Kim Kardashian’s lunch plans is no expertise at all. Expertise gained on the First Amendment is a whole different ballgame, and we seem to be in the seventh inning stretch. Free speech is so fundamental, yet isn’t the easiest thing to dissect and understand. The very essence of “free speech” implies just that–freedom. Limits seem not only unconstitutional, but fundamentally wrong.

So, we learn about “free speech” from the internet, and exercise that right on the internet. Frequently. And with flourish! (At least, I do.) We’ve got Twitter, Facebook, and a whole host of other platforms upon which we can unleash our views on an unsuspecting public. There’s freedom there; on the internet, we have the ability to go completely anonymous, or construct a whole virtual personality which may or may not be true to life. With that freedom comes a certain boldness; that boldness leads to what we’re seeing in this case.

I think we may be on the verge of a new trend on how free speech rights will be interpreted, and I think Nikki Haley’s case could represent a turning point. Clearly, what this guy said on Facebook is not okay; his arrest was not reactionary. However, with the recent creative interpretations we’ve seen of free speech jurisprudence (I’m looking at you, LA), could we be looking at a new standard of what is and is not acceptable? Could this new boldness both online and in the meatspace signal a need for new tolerance for what we’ve previously considered abhorrent?

Consider this an open thread.

Originally seen at Beyond Clause 8


3 thoughts on “The New Free Speech Culture

  1. davere

    You have a great future ahead of you, Amy, and we sure need more like you–young, articulate people who understand and respect the rule of law and are willing to stand up for it. This post was right on the money. Social media wouldn’t be quite so risky if the nation hadn’t been dumbed to the core by rampant liberalism. This guy is the poster boy.

  2. Scott Eiland

    Words mean things, and threatening to murder a public official, even in the commenter’s ADORABLE tone, is a crime. And it should be. I’m glad he was arrested.

    Don’t have much in the way of legal analysis here other than to note that the leftist mob that is the occupy movement has more than its share of whack jobs.


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