The Freedom of Speech and Respecting Differences of Opinion

One of the things that I think is bad about the political climate of today is a lack of respect for differences of opinion among the various sides. Especially with the Tea Party and many of its supporters, I’ve seen how they’ve voted out of office any Republican who deviate in any way from their conservative philosophy or who talk about compromise with Democrats about any issue. Personally I’ve gotten into conflicts with people who think all liberals are socialists and are un-American. I realize that people on the Left can be guilty of intolerance of different views as well. But today, it’s the Right that has been most guilty of contributing to the intolerance of different views. This democratic republic that is the United States works best when differing views are debated and when there is a genuine respect for differences of opinions.

Recently Thomas Healy wrote a book called The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind– and Changed the History of Free Speech in America about Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent from the Supreme Court decision Abrams versus United States in 1919. In that case, anarchist Jacob Abrams and a group of Russian immigrants were convicted of violating the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States” or to “willfully urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of the production” of the things “necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.” They were sentence to prison terms of 15 to 20 years for distributing pamphlets that criticized the U.S. military’s recent deployment of troops to Russia and advocated a general strike in factories producing military goods.

Holmes dissented from the majority Supreme Court decision upholding the convictions, arguing that the government should not restrict the freedom of speech of unpopular viewpoints unless the government can prove a direct and immediate connection between an act of speech and a subsequent crime. Holmes argued that the distribution of pamphlets by these Russian immigrants posed no danger to the security of the United States and that they were acting within their rights of free expression. Justice Holmes argued that the way to find truth is for different and diverse opinions fight it out in the marketplace of ideas. He wrote in his dissent:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises.

But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

Andrew Cohen wrote about the significance of this dissent in his article The Most Powerful Dissent In American History” in the Atlantic Magazine:

If there is a more relevant or powerful passage in American law, I am not aware of it. Relevant because it expressed a universal concept — free trade in ideas — that 125 years after the Constitution was ratified still had not yet taken hold in our democracy. Powerful because it went beyond legal precepts to a fundamental fact of human existence: We all make mistakes. We all have good opinions and bad ones. None of us are right all the time. All of us at one point or another have to respect what someone else says. And life is an experiment from the moment we wake in the morning until the moment we lay our heads down at night.

It’s a passage written 94 years ago that both explains and preserves our op-ed pages and the Internet, talk-radio shows, and blogs, in the brilliant blending of two American institutions that were not always destined to go together: the free market and free speech.

Robert Cox wrote in his blog What America Should Share with the World: Justice Holmes’ Dissent in Abrams v. United States and the Marketplace of Ideas of the importance of protecting unpopular and even offensive speech. Cox wrote:

…in order to fully understand free speech as a marketplace of ideas, one has to first accept the Jeffersonian premise to our nation, derived from Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, that governmental authority comes from the people and that the people have the right to take that power back. That government only rules with the consent of the governed. Free speech then is an expression of resistance to tyrannical impulses of which censorship is just one.

It is difficult enough, however, to get many Americans to understand how their right to free speech is protected by allowing protestors to burn flags, bigots to burn crosses and Larry Flynt to publish Hustler magazine so I do not expect people in, say, the Middle East or the former Soviet Republics to immediately embrace a radical notion of free speech that even our closest Western allies shun. Yet, Holmes belief that the best test of truth is acceptance in the marketplace of ideas expresses the quintessential American optimism that holds truth to be eternal and something that will, given time, overcome all obstacles to its expression. I’d like to share that with the world.

With his dissent in Abrams, Holmes taps into a broad range of American values: the connection between free speech and democracy, free market economics, the importance of advancing political debate through the ballot box not through the barrel of a gun, participatory government, and our system of checks and balances.

One of the best examples that I know of a group of Americans who vigorously debate issues, yet keep a sense of respect for differences of opinions is a series of youtube videos I recently discovered called NBA Open Court, where former NBA players discuss and debate various topics in the NBA. I’ve wasted a lot of time watching youtube videos of these NBA players debate about what players are better, which were the best NBA teams, who were the best clutch players. When I was a kid, I had those debates all the time with my friends who I used to play basketball with. In the early 1980s, my brothers and I were Celtics fans and most of my friends were Philadelphia 76er fans, and we used to always argue about our respective teams. Who was better, Bird or Dr. J? Was Robert Parish a better center than Moses Malone? Was Tiny Archibald a better point guard than Maurice Cheeks? When the 76ers began to decline, the arguments shifted to the Boston Celtics and the L.A. Lakers.

And when Michael Jordan came to the league, the big argument between my friends and I was who was the best NBA player: Bird, Magic or Jordan? Many years later, I have to admit that Jordan was the greater player. During the 1980s, however, I was firmly convinced that both Bird and Magic were greater players. Bird had the greater outside shot and was the greater rebounder. Magic was the greater passer and had greater control of the offense as point guard. Both Bird and Magic were better team players than Jordan was at the beginning of Jordan’s career, and Bird and Magic were more natural team leaders. I think Jordan had to learn to become a team leader. I think where Jordan excelled over Bird and Magic was in his athleticism, his one-on-one abilities, and most of all, his great defense. Today, people focus on Jordan’s offensive skills. We often forget that Jordan was one of the best defensive players of his generation. Bird and Magic were good team defensive players, but one-on-one defense, they were nowhere near Jordan’s class.

During my 20s I would often go to the playground to play and every once and a while, I argued politics with a few people I got to know. I would argue out the liberal position, they would argue out either a radical leftist position or a conservative position. We wouldn’t convince the other person that they were wrong, but we enjoyed the give-and-take of the discussions and we would often treat the others to gator aide at 7-11.

I have to admit I’m more used to this sort of give-and-take than the crazy intolerance that permeates today’s political climate. I don’t agree with conservatives, but I don’t think they’re all evil. The conservatives I’m met are just like anyone else: some conservatives are nice people who are generally tolerant of differences, while others are pretty dogmatic and intolerant. I’m liberal, but I think liberals are the same: some liberals are nice, some are kind of crazy. You have to get to know the person first and not get caught up in prejudging them based on stereotypes of their politics. Over the past few years I’ve met more of those crazy type of conservatives who have a hard time dealing with differences of opinions. I think the times are bringing out the worse in some people. I’m hoping there is eventually a shift where we once again see the value of having diverse opinions and where we can argue about issues without seeing the people we disagree with in a bad light.

In an interview with Blaze-TV, Professor Thomas Healy discusses a pivotal moment in history — when Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes changed his perspective of the First Amendment, and in doing so, molded the modern-day view of Americans’ individual rights. Professor Healy is the author of, “THE GREAT DISSENT: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind–and Changed the History of Free Speech in America”.

NBA Open Court- the group argues about who would they pick first in their team, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, or Larry Bird?

NBA Open Court- the group talks about who is the best coach in NBA history

NBA Open Court- the group argues about who was the better Dream Team

NBA Open Court- the group argues about what city is the best basketball played

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About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Since my time in college, my goal has been to be a successful children’s book illustrator. I’ve illustrated 3 books: Two Moms the Zark and Me by Johnny Valentine in 1993; Night Travelers by Sue Hill in 1994; and Cherubic Children’s New Classic Story Book Volume 2 for Cherubic Press in 1998. I’ve painted murals for Lester Shields Elementary School in San Jose, the Berryessa branch of the San Jose Public Library, and Grace Community Church in Los Altos. I’ve had a few illustrations published in South Bay Accent Magazine and I will have an illustration published in the January/February issue of Tikkun magazine.
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