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NOTE: This article includes a correction from an earlier version that misidentified Kelvin Cochran's position. He is Atlanta's former fire chief.
The idea of free speech embedded into the U.S. Constitution 225 years ago remains an elusive goal ever under attack and in need of a diligent defense. Even as we Americans often don’t fully grasp its scope and meaning, what we hold as a fundamental right isn’t always acknowledged everywhere.
We have seen this play out in recent unrelated events, each of which follow a thread to ponder: Free expression isn’t a given, and where it exists, its consequences can be sobering. And the way government interacts with this exchange is vital to preserving that liberty.
Two weeks ago, Islamic extremists attacked the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people in retaliation for the publication’s caricatures of the prophet Muhammed. It was the latest violent act from zealots unwilling to accept beliefs outside of their own.
Thousands worldwide offered support for Charlie and all publications that take on sacred cows, though many still feel the magazine went beyond good taste in poking fun at others’ beliefs. The more advanced the society, the more willing it is to endure a wider range of ideas under the umbrella of freedom, even when those views may cross the line of decorum.
But unpopular ideas can carry risk. It’s up to those who express them to decide if they are worth the price. There remains a distinction in whether one can express something legally, and whether one should. The former is protected by law; the latter is up to our discretion. With all rights come the responsibility to use them wisely.
Pope Francis even weighed in on this with the view that ridiculing faith falls beyond the boundary of free expression. While we blanch at that notion, remember he’s a man of beliefs, not the law, so his domain is over what we “should” do and not what we “can.”
Those who defend the right to be offensive within the full gamut of free expression understand why “can” is of utmost importance. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law ...” restricting our ability to gather, speak, write or believe without government interference.
Yet government can only shield us from the results of our free expression to a point. There’s no bubble of protection from all of the consequences it incurs.
An incident close to home shed light on a different aspect of the topic. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed fired Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran over a book the chief wrote that included Cochran’s ideas on homosexuality. Reed claims Cochran violated city rules for not following the proper procedures to approve his book. Cochran and his backers claim he is being discriminated against for his religious views.
Anyone is entitled to opine that Reed “shouldn’t” have fired Cochran, but as the boss, he certainly “can.” Employers can take such action if free speech is inconsistent with a company’s message or mission. If you stand in the middle of the office and espouse offensive views, you’ll likely be shown the door. You won’t be thrown in jail; the First Amendment protects your choice to speak, but it doesn’t promise you a job.
There are laws against workplace discrimination targeting skin color, gender or physical disability, factors beyond anyone’s control. But expression of beliefs is a choice. If you don’t like your employer stifling your views, you’re free to work elsewhere.
Cochran’s supporters are among those pushing for a bill in the legislature that would support religious freedom in the workplace. One of the ideas behind it may be the backlash over the Affordable Care Act mandate that companies must provide birth control prescription coverage even if it contradicts their faith.
Here is a case where the government may indeed be taking sides in the consequences of free speech. The ACA requirement already was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case last year. The laws created in reaction to it may not hold up, either, depending on what behaviors they address.
The bottom line here is that the First Amendment keeps the government from intervening on matters of faith or speech unless it endangers someone (yelling “fire!” in a crowd, for instance). And as long as those 45 words remain in effect, additional laws affirming the right to believe as we wish, at work or anywhere else, do not seem necessary.
It’s also worth noting free expression of faith in the workplace is a concept many may endorse when the beliefs match their own, but not as much when it involves someone else’s. We can’t have it both ways; if religious freedom doesn’t apply to all, no one is free.
And let’s add a historical example on the weekend we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When King and his followers marched peacefully 50 years ago demanding equal rights, the response of many law enforcement officials (the government) was to attack them with beatings, fire hoses and dogs.
That response was a First Amendment violation, government representatives choosing sides in the free speech debate. In doing so, they resorted to violent oppression used by totalitarian regimes that imprison political dissidents and punish anyone who opposes those in power.
In that sense, the local leaders who sought to suppress marchers’ rights were no better than the despots from banana republics who don’t respect freedom of any kind, from speech on down the line. And they will do anything to silence it, often in the name of their god.
All these cases point out how freedom of expression is a complicated right that requires tolerance from all sides, and that often is lacking. And we’re reminded our blessed First Amendment, while it gives us the liberty to say, pray and gather as we wish, can’t always protect us from the consequences of those actions.
So the debate goes on, as it should. Let’s hope we gain a little more insight each time on the way to creating a nation and a world that fully honors the liberties we cherish.