April 20, 2022

The First Amendment stretches over the extremes


The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is a precious thing. If you don’t believe it, consider the people of Russia. How many Russians have been jailed or worse for speaking out against their dictator Vladimir Putin?

Americans can say pretty much anything, whether it is popular or not. Consider Georgia’s ultra-right-wing U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene on one end of the spectrum and New York’s ultra-left-wing U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the other end. Their opinions couldn’t be more different. But that’s what the First Amendment is all about, opinions on both extremes and everything in the middle.

One expression Americans cannot do is yell “fire” in a crowded theater if there is no fire. That would be reckless endangerment of the lives of others.

These days, you are likely to see and hear almost anything. Americans aren’t bashful about expressing what’s on their minds. Sniff around social media, and you’ll get a snoot of mixed opinions. That’s Americans flexing First Amendment rights, aka freedom of speech.

Consider this. Just because we can say certain things, should we? That’s a matter of opinion, too.

Here’s an example.

I attended a meeting recently. A fella was wearing a cap that spelled out the F-word in bold letters on the front. Most people didn’t notice it, but others did. When the gathering was over, a hearty discussion about the cap followed. Some folks were disturbed. Others just shrugged their shoulders. The guy wearing the cap wondered why all the fuss.

Did the person have the right to display a message that was offensive to some? Certainly. Did the cap’s owner consider the reactions of those who read the word? Probably not. What’s in poor taste to one individual is not necessarily in poor taste to another.

Here we go again, freedom of speech.

Make no mistake. I am a stalwart in the defense of the First Amendment. That said, I believe in the responsible use of our freedom-of-speech rights. I am concerned about the desensitizing trend that winks at the injection of vulgarity into everyday language including music, TV and movies. Yes, even clothing.  There’s an endless list of extreme examples allowed by the First Amendment.

If you were around in the mid-1950s, you can’t forget the hullabaloo that Elvis Presley caused with his gyrating hips. “Oh, no,” TV producers gasped. The Ed Sullivan Show televised the King’s first performance from the waist up.

The straitlaced set was certain rock ’n’ roll music was going to send my generation straight to Hell. Ed Sullivan and those who were likeminded would need CPR over modern music. And the King’s moves would be considered milquetoast.

Ditto for the dialogue and acting on the once-wildly-popular I Love Lucy show. Lucy and Desi had twin beds, after all. TV scripts and plots have veered a million miles away from the 1950s. Just watch and listen. Want an example? Try today’s TV series Yellowstone.

So, what do I think about all of this?

Freedoms are precious. Discretion should be valued, too. There’s an old saying, “Good manners will get you to where money never will.”

The fact that we can say, do or display almost anything doesn’t mean that we always should.