Did I miss the nuances of free speech?

This taken from the comments section of an article written by Joe Conason on the tasering incident.

The most distressing thing about this incident to me is that commentators like Mr. Conason, with whom I agree most of the rest of the time, insist on viewing this whole thing as some kind of free speech issue. It was not. On this point, the letter previously submitted by FinFangFoom had it exactly right:

“You don’t have the right to violate an organization’s rules, burst into their meeting, grab a microphone from another student, and begin rambling about your conspiracy theory. The University of Florida had every right to remove the student, and every [right] to get rough with him when he VIOLENTLY resisted arrest.”

If there’s any First Amendment issue here, it’s that Mr. Meyer infringed upon the First Amendment rights of everyone else in that room who hoped to ask Senator Kerry a question. He had his time to speak, he went over his time, and clearly his only purpose in being there was to cause a ruckus. Let’s be blunt: the kid behaved like a spoiled asshole. Why is he now being celebrated, defended, held up as a First Amendment martyr?


There are plenty of people in the U.S. who are legitimate victims of suppression of First Amendment rights. Go champion their causes — don’t waste your time defending this idiot who didn’t know when to stand down, and who was only there because he wanted to promote himself.

Is this commenter right?

It would be impossible to dispute that there are people whose First Amendment rights have been more egregiously violated than Mr. Meyers’. But, you could say that about any First Amendment violation, however large or small. So that is something of a non-issue. I won’t apologize for the fact that this kid was white, possibly rich, possibly had a sense of entitlement. In fact, from the video he looked like something of a jerk. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t entitled to his rights.

I’ll repeat it again — free speech is only free speech if it’s a right even given to people you hate.

The commenter writes, “If there’s any First Amendment issue here, it’s that Mr. Meyer infringed upon the First Amendment rights of everyone else in that room who hoped to ask Senator Kerry a question.” I have seen a similar sentiment expressed elsewhere on the web. The first thing that comes to mind for me is that the First Amendment protects your free speech from government infringement. It doesn’t say anything about the courtesy to speak among my peers, in any fair or equal share or measure. In other words, free speech (at least as defined by the First Amendment) is about allowing a soap box in the public square, but it says nothing about who gets to stand on it, and for how long. The key thing the First Amendment says is that the government has no right restricting the use of the soap box.

Did I miss the nuance here? I don’t think so. Police officers comprise an arm of the executive branch of government. They are law enforcement. When someone acting on behalf of the government restricts my speech, especially in a political context, that’s a First Amendment violation. Plain and simple.

In conclusion, Meyers was taser’ed for standing on the soap box too long, and for saying things too disagreeable to the general audience, especially the police officers. Like it or not, standing on the soap box too long is protected by the First Amendment.

If you want him off the soap box, it’s simple: ask him off, boo him off, or simply stop listening. You don’t get to ask the government to remove him, because the government doesn’t get to pick how long is too long, and what speech is worthy of being heard. Let me repeat that again: the government doesn’t get to pick what speech is worthy of being heard.

I think it is only intellectually honest to separate the free speech issue from the police brutality issue. But at the same time, I have a hard time doing so. Meyers was removed from the forum by force — initially, the police just grabbed him, and told him he had to go. This was a First Amendment violation in itself. But then, they handcuffed him. This made him think he was under arrest (and in fact, he was). So now, not only was his First Amendment right being trampled upon, but he was also being charged as a criminal. I, in the same situation, would not have simply gone quietly in the night. I would have done exactly what he did — shouted out, “They are arresting me! Do you see this!?” I would have squirmed. I would have asked for the police to reason with me. And, I would have been taser’ed.

So, although it seems intellectually honest to separate the speech from the brutality, the two seem vitally, essentially connected. More generally, if you have your rights violated, and then resist that violation, the punishment for your resistance still relates to the rights which were originally violated.

On a side note, I think Conason is right to relate this incident to the “Free Speech Zones” used by Bush during his speeches. Here’s another post from the comments section:

I live and work in a University community. Two years ago, I was among a group of about 70 people who quietly marched towards the campus, where President Bush was speaking, to protest the war in Iraq. We held signs, all of them within the bounds of good taste, and we did not chant or shout or create any disturbance, just marched quietly through town and to the campus, where we were prevented, by campus security, from getting anywhere near the central commons where the president was to speak. Only those who had been vetted in advance were allowed there, most of them wearing red, white and blue and carrying pro-Bush and pro-war signs and banners. We were shunted to an area — shade and grass there so we were not uncomfortable — well out of sight and earshot of the actual event. That was disturbing, in a free country on a public university campus. But more disturbing was the fact that there were armed guards carrying large, visible weapons, patrolling the rooftops of the buildings surrounding us, and keeping an eye on us. And most disturbing was the fact that, when the event — which we could not hear except for the cheering of the carefully assembled crowd — was over, the attendees departed the event by a route that took them right past our area. They threw things at us, shouted obscenities, and had a bullhorn through which they shouted “Traitors!” and other things far more offensive. No one made any effort to restrain their rage or hatred. But I am quite sure, had any one of us made a move, or started shouting, or in any way appeared to be trying to break free from our “free speech zone”, we would have been “handled” by the guys on the rooftops. It is alarming to me that this kind of thing has happened again and again and the media never mentions it in the coverage of these staged events. I believe that is how dictatorships operate; it is not how I was taught that people live and behave in a democracy.

I feel this is also related to the recent incident in New York with regard to President Ahmadinejad of Iran visiting Columbia University for a public forum. Here is a post and a clever response by someone named “ann” on NYTimes City Room:

“As some of the other people here have already said, what in the world could this guy have to say that we need to hear? Yes, I believe in freedom of speech, but, Iranians are NOT our allies…If you really want to hear what this man has to say, why don’t you go visit him in Iran, and, see if you get the same liberal freedoms that you want to grant him here…and, honestly, anything that comes out of his mouth will only be a lie, conjured up to make himself and his country look more like an ally than an enemy…and, as far as visiting Ground Zero, if we did let him, we would probably see a picture of him at the site (smiling) on the Al Jazeera website soon after…” — Posted by ron

I wouldn’t want to hear him speak in Iran because no one would have the freedom to question him there. In America, we will be able to hear him express his opinions, and we will be able to hear someone openly question them, debate them, and discuss them. It’s a beautiful thing. — Posted by ann

Let’s just hope Ahmadinejad doesn’t get taser’ed for speaking too long. Might make follow-up diplomatic relations difficult. (I hope Cheney isn’t reading this…)

Responding again to the above, I don’t think it’s alarmist to point to these currents in our culture and say, “This smells like fascism.” We may still be the greatest country on Earth with regard to free speech, but it isn’t a given. Everything can change, and everything does. We must defend this essential right now as fiercely as two centuries ago.

Leave a Reply