“If you don’t agree with me, shut up!

“And if you don’t shut your mouth, I’ll shut it for you!”

That seems to be the alarming attitude of a significant number of American college students, based on a new survey of 1,500 respondents from both private and public colleges, conducted by John Villasenor of UCLA.

Among the disturbing findings, 19% advocate violence to silence a speaker engaged in “hate speech,” and 51% think it is OK to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree. The students also showed serious ignorance about the First Amendment; only 39% knew that “hate speech” is indeed protected.

While students’ ignorance and these views are reprehensible, they are shared by some faculty members.

Monday, at my alma mater at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, 30 academics — about a third of the teachers — ironically condemned a visit by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, lambasting his talk about free speech as “hypocritical” and “troubling.”

A Fundamental American Right

Is anyone really surprised that the failed U.S. education system has produced repeated generations of civic dunces who lack a clue about our national history or constitutional government?

Those faculty members may never have taught students that during the 1789 ratification process, citizens and state legislatures were very concerned that the new Constitution gave too much power to the government.

That’s why the Bill of Rights, led by James Madison, included the First Amendment. It has been our basic law since December 15, 1791, forbidding “abridging the freedom of speech” by anyone, including ignorant and/or violent college kids, or politicians.

In the two centuries since, the scope of the amendment has been defined by key U.S. Supreme Court precedents. Its guarantees are very broad, but there are limits.

The Brandenburg v. Ohio 1969 decision said speech that “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action” is not protected.

Generally, the Court has upheld free speech, however hateful or repugnant it may be, as in a 2011 case decided 8-1, where members of a so-called Kansas “church” attracted national attention for their hateful, anti-gay protests at the funerals of U.S. military members.

But freedom of speech is not an issue confined only to campuses at University of California, Berkeley and Georgetown.

Disdain for Free Speech

The chief user of free speech (albeit in constant Twitter chatter), the president of the U.S., is advocating firing NFL players who exercise their First Amendment rights. That is a far greater threat to free speech than anything happening on college campuses.

Ironically, the president is using the same tactics of the college kids he and his attorney general deplore: Pressure those with whom you disagree to shut up.

Sadly, the president has a long record of showing ignorance and even disdain for free speech.

At a political rally on February 19, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas, candidate Donald Trump attacked newspapers that criticized him, but took a radically different turn, suggesting that as president he would change libel laws so that newspapers could be sued for “false” and “negative” reporting or opinions.

After his election, Trump proposed new consequences for flag burning, a form of protest that the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that is protected under the Constitution. “Perhaps a loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” the president-elect tweeted.

Walter Olson, noted legal author and founder of Overlawyered.com, noted: “Donald Trump has been filing and threatening lawsuits to shut up critics and adversaries over the whole course of his career.”

Keeping the Waters Pure

One of the staunchest and most celebrated defenders of freedom of speech was my fellow Marylander, Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), one of America’s greatest and most controversial literary figures.

Mencken despised and opposed the effort of any group, whether religious, reformers or politicians, to force their way of thinking on society, while he defended the right of all Americans to express their views freely.

But the “Sage of Baltimore,” as he was known, had his doubts, saying about government wartime censorship: “The American people, I am convinced, really detest free speech. At the slightest alarm they are ready to put it down.”

The founders of the U.S. were no strangers to free speech and ferocious journalism. They both suffered it and employed it.

But a historic consensus can be found in an 1823 letter from Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette:

The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.

Yours for liberty,

Bob Bauman, JD
Chairman, Freedom Alliance

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