Editorial: The realities of free speech

The Wisconsin Gazette

The horrific massacre of journalists in Paris on Jan. 7 demonstrates what happens when the freedoms of speech and religion collide with extremism. The French collision involved Muslim radicals, but, here in the United States, we have a growing movement of right-wing extremists who need to understand the First Amendment guarantees provided by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. 

The First Amendment does not guarantee unfettered rights to either the freedom of speech or religion. It simply prohibits the government from interfering with the lawful exercise of those freedoms.

Over the holidays, we ran an outside writer’s opinion piece at www.wisconsingazette.com that called for overturning the Second Amendment. Almost immediately, we received hundreds of shocking, profanity-laced comments threatening violence against the author and us. Many commenters attempted to publish the author’s address and phone number. Some called for his murder.

When we deleted dozens of those comments, we were accused of violating the responders’ rights to free speech. Nowhere does the Constitution say that any publication is obligated to publish content that it finds offensive, and a government that forced us to do so would be in violation of our freedom of the press. 

In this issue of WiG, we have a story (page 12) about an anti-gay student at Marquette University who claims that his free speech was violated when the teaching assistant of an ethics class refused his request to initiate a class discussion about the immorality of same-sex marriage. 

The First Amendment does not permit students to hijack classrooms and turn them into forums for their controversial religious views. Just because the government does not prevent individuals from speaking their thoughts does not mean that everyone else has to publish them, give them a soapbox or even listen to them.

Similarly, the First Amendment’s guarantee of free religion does not mean that everyone is obligated to bow to everyone else’s religious views. In fact, it means the opposite.

As marriage equality gradually becomes the law of the land, we see county clerks refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — all in the name of “freedom of religion.”

But in conferring on individuals the right to practice any religion they choose, the Constitution does not say they can silence or discriminate against people who hold different beliefs. In fact, it would be impossible to guarantee religious freedom if this were the case, because the dominant religion could seek to prevent citizens from practicing other faiths. 

We find it absurd that prohibiting people from engaging in same-sex relationships is the underpinning of a major spiritual belief system. But for a large portion of fundamentalist Christians, condemning other people’s sexual practices is at the core of their faith, and we believe they are entitled by the Constitution to hold that view. They are not entitled, however, to discriminate against fellow citizens whose religions teach otherwise or against people who practice no religion and don’t care how LGBT people conduct their personal lives. 

The jihadists who gunned down 12 people at the offices of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris believed that they were exercising their religion. The paper had repeatedly mocked Islam, and fundamentalist Muslims hold that blasphemy is punishable by death — just as the Roman Catholic Church held for centuries. America’s fundamentalist Christians, some of whom have advocated successfully for making homosexuality a capital crime in other countries, should take a long look in the mirror and think about this incident. So should gun activists who call for Second Amendment critics to be put to death simply for speaking their minds.

While Fox News is using the massacre in France to call for a denunciation of Islam, we are more concerned about the followers of Fox News. They must learn where their rights end and the rights of others begin.