Freedom of Silence

Does the First Amendment guarantee freedom from speech?

As a Junior attending a private liberal arts college in 1966, I witnessed a curious stand-off: the Dean of Students politely asking recruiters for the CIA to leave the college property. Because this liberal college enjoyed the perquisites of private property, the unpopular CIA recruiters could be legally sent packing else face trespass. Ditto the Armed Services: no campus ROTC unit at my alma mater. To join a ROTC unit, here the student in 1966 was required to leave campus. A fellow student portrayed this “ROTC desert” as a challenge to our First Amendment rights. (I recall our entertaining mutual friends with a lively debate on whether individual rights were violated by not supporting the efforts of military/intelligence recruiters to provide career information and access.)

ROTC or CIA absence on campus- a curbing of freedom of speech, of assembly? My position was cryptic: “who’s asking?”

2020 was witness to a dual public space incursion: free speech and free grief. One is noisy, one is quiet. Sometimes they are companions. Like second amendment “rights” and public safety. Which deserves protection? Again my question, “who’s asking?”

Does the First Amendment protect its citizens from speech?

We know the First protects speech, but how about speech’s consequences? On this subject our Founding Fathers took a breath, paused and left “silence” to the voting box and the courtroom. And to deliberating “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which “speech territory” and its limits we are rediscovering of recent.

If one asks French Prime Minister Macron, the astonishing reply would be “Non!” The sanctity of free speech protection does not extend to silence. So by Macron’s reckoning, the sanctity of French culture and institutions are being challenged by liberal American campuses and Black Lives Matter protests: another consequence, another American culture export.

If the question “who’s asking” requires deliberation then it’s time for laws and adjudicated decisions to draw lines and demarcate human traffic. In other words time to redeem and restore “common sense,” as Rep. Raskin eloquently implored during the Senate Impeachment hearings.

“Awarding,” legally speaking, is “out of the question.”

February 11

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Rodney Clough

Rodney Clough

Refuses to nap. Septuagenarian. Cliche’ raker. Writes weekly.