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free speech religion donald trump disinformation politics america
Free speech graffiti. (Newtown Graffiti, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

As the sacred paradigm of free speech appears to be evolving in America toward a greater emphasis on social justice, I’m wondering how worried religious believers should be that the cultural change might disadvantage them down the road.

After all, most Americans are growing sick and tired of gratuitous and cynical lying in the public square. This after the fact-averse Trump presidency and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection ignited by the now-former president’s easily debunked lies over many months that his 2020 election would be and then ostensibly was “stolen.”

These bald-faced falsehoods yet continue, many months after Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, spewed by Trump himself as well as elected Republican leaders in Congress and conservative, GOP-ruled statehouses across the land — not to mention from the mouths and social media feeds of tens of millions of deluded Americans.

So if lying is the new boogieman of free speech, how should we view supernatural religion (largely Christianity in the U.S.), which, in truth, is but a cosmic lie based on factless, invisible fantasies — a God/man deity (“Jesus”), Heaven, Hell, immortal joy or endless suffering in a purported “afterlife,” etc. Put another way, godly religions are junk bonds of unsubstantiated and unverifiable mistruths.

Today, after the long winter of political criminality and mendacity (whose ice has yet to fully thaw), many Americans are beginning to question the wisdom of the First Amendment in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which, along with freedom of religion, press, assembly and petition, codifies free speech as an inherent right of all citizens.

This growing wariness and weariness of the unanticipated political and social costs of purposefully dishonest free speech in our teetering democracy is highlighted in two excellent opinion pieces recently published in the New York Times:

“Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the A.C.L.U. Faces an Identity Crisis,”  by Michael Powell (June 6).

“The Left Needs the A.C.L.U. to Keep Defending Awful Speech,” by Michelle Goldberg (June 7)

In his essay, Powell explains why key attitudes are shifting in the realm of free speech:

The A.C.L.U., America’s high temple of free speech and civil liberties, has emerged as a muscular and richly funded progressive powerhouse in recent years, taking on the Trump administration in more than 400 lawsuits. But the organization finds itself riven with internal tensions over whether it has stepped away from a founding principle — unwavering devotion to the First Amendment.

“Its national and state staff members debate, often hotly, whether defense of speech conflicts with advocacy for a growing number of progressive causes, including voting rights, reparations, transgender rights and defunding the police.

“Those debates mirror those of the larger culture, where a belief in the centrality of free speech to American democracy contends with ever more forceful progressive arguments that hate speech is a form of psychological and even physical violence. These conflicts are unsettling to many of the crusading lawyers who helped build the A.C.L.U.”

That’s the core question: How do we respond when free speech is not only subjectively offensive to many Americans but also objectively harmful?

Some ACLU lawyers and staff members, especially younger ones, argue that the harmful effects of the First Amendment are “more often a tool of the powerful than the oppressed.”

Powell explained that part of the reason for the shift in focus at the ACLU is that due to a tsunami of new funding that poured into the organization after Trump was elected in 2016, the organization has hired a lot of new lawyers and staff who are siloed in work not on free speech cases but issues like immigration, transgender rights and social justice.

And they see the damage official misinformation and disinformation (lying) is doing to the nation.

Goldberg in her piece referenced Powell’s article:

“I can understand why the free speech libertarianism that I grew up with has fallen out of fashion. As The New York Times’s Michael Powell reported in a fascinating article last weekend, there’s a divide at the A.C.L.U. between an old guard committed to an expansive version of free speech and staff members who argue that a ‘rigid’ view of the First Amendment undermines the fight for racial justice. Powell quoted Goldberger lamenting, ‘Liberals are leaving the First Amendment behind.’”

While concerned, Goldberg stresses that she’s less alarmed than Powell by the scenario he alludes to:

Still, it’s pretty clear there’s a generational split over free speech, both in the A.C.L.U. and in liberalism writ large.

“I wonder, however, if this divide could soon fade away, because events in the wider world are conspiring to remind the American left how dependent it is on a robust First Amendment. Civil libertarians have always argued that even if privileged people enjoy more free speech protections in practice, erosions of free speech guarantees will always fall hardest on the most marginalized. This is now happening all over the country.”

A reasonable assessment, of course, but the question remains about what to do with objectively harmful free speech in any instance, no matter who it more greatly relates to in particular.

Aware of the dangers of restricted speech, she notes the “chilling effect” of “right-wing moral panic about critical race theory,” leading to “a rash of statewide bills barring schools — including colleges and universities — from teaching what are often called ‘divisive concepts,’ including the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.”

It’s unclear if this political debate will resolve itself in a moderate or more extreme way. Certainly, if America starts parsing free-speech rights into valid and invalid realms, religious dogma, which manifestly does cause objective damage, especially to indoctrinated children, might begin to be shunted into the harmful and invalid realm.

That would be a good thing for children but no so good a thing perhaps for the First Amendment.

But I still think it’s do-able and justifiable, if factuality, not bias, is the arbiter.

For example, one might ask on what objective basis is supernatural dogma taught to vulnerable, impressionable children? Or ask if any facts verify that Trump, not Biden, was elected president of the United States in 2020?

If the answer is “none” and “no,” respectively, we should view it as dangerous, not “free,” speech, the equivalent of mendacious propaganda, which should not be constitutionally protected.

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Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...

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