Blue Byline

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Free speech on the street and in a dangerous world

Post by Brian O'Neill on Sep. 27, 2012 at 11:45 am with 10 Comments »
September 27, 2012 11:45 am

When gunmen stormed the house occupied by Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens, killing him and three former Navy Seals working as private contractors, they must have hoped their actions would fracture our Arabic partnerships and test the mettle of our resolve in their part of the world. They were correct.

Had they also guessed that their murderous rampage would have us questioning the very framework of our democracy – the right to free speech – they would have again, and unfortunately, been correct.

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

As news on the tragic event in Libya unfolded, we watched hate-filled mobs burn our flag, storm our embassies and fill the news with anti-American rhetoric. Some enraged Americans opined there should be consequences for Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the 55-year-old Egyptian Coptic Christian who created the disrespectful piece of filth entitled, “Innocence of Muslims.”

I agreed, believing that something, some unspecified action must be taken against this idiot for using an American stick to stir up a foreign bee hive.

But what about the First Amendment? Would that not violate Nakoula’s right to free speech?

Yes, but here was my rationale. About twenty years ago I was working graveyard shift when a huge fight broke out at a downtown bar. When we rolled up about thirty drunks were throwing chairs and swinging fists inside the tavern and out on the sidewalk. We broke up the fight and initially arrested everyone except, as it turned out, the one guy whom witnesses said started the entire brawl by taunting his group’s rivals into a fight.

Free speech, I thought to myself. Sticks and stones, etc., right?

Wrong. A senior cop pointed out that the city’s criminal code prohibited “fighting words.” He was right – a sub-clause within the Disorderly Conduct code authorized police to arrest a person whose words were clearly intended to incite a fight or provoke an assault. The instigator joined the line at the jail.

That arrest felt justified at the time, and the recollection appeared to juxtapose well with the current furor over Nakoula’s insulting film and the global outrage it has incited. I even found a quote that eloquently addressed this point of view:

“This [film] has very little or nothing to do with freedom and freedom of speech. This is the weakness of and the abuse of freedom, and in many places it is a crime.”

Nicely put, I thought. Unfortunately, the source of this quote provided me with the first clue that my point of view was untenable. The speaker was none other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The old adage, “Politics makes for strange bedfellows” never seemed so appropriate, but it was not my only wake-up call.

I received a stark reminder on the value of the First Amendment from a buddy at the hockey rink. Tom is a retired Army officer, a former Special Forces soldier and a war veteran. Vets like him have earned the right to be heard on the subject of American ideals, such as the freedom of religion, of the press, of the right to assemble and the right to free speech.

When I brought up the topic of the Libyan tragedy, the riots in the middle east and the idea of punishing Nakoula for inciting such violence and hatred against our country, Tom had a short and simple answer.

“My soldiers and I went to war, fought and bled for that right. No way.”

His answer resonated. It framed my sense of outrage as petty and small-minded. It also made me realize that the extremists who were currently burning our flag and rioting outside our embassies were only exercising privileges temporarily granted them by their authoritarian regimes.

The freedom of speech is not a privilege. It is a right that we hold in common with free people. If those filled with hatred for the U.S. believe their countries value individual rights, I would suggest the following experiment:

Burn your own flag and see what happens.

Leave a comment Comments → 10
  1. What about digital over the air TV? It’s an unqualified failure.
    And it failed almost exactly the big cable companies wanted it
    to fail. Shouldn’t there be right to free speech where these
    giant parasites strangle us?

  2. NotPoliticallyCorrect says:

    Another nice one sided story again. Has anybody really thought about why this guy came up with this idea and movie?

    Second, this attack was NOT the result of the movie. It was a planned attack, and the signs were ignored.

  3. Brian O'Neill says:

    The column was not a piece on international terrorism, NPC, it was about a knee jerk reaction to violence that momentarily made us (me) lose sight of the importance of free speech. I have as much or more information on the dynamics of the Libyan assault as anyone, but speculation on this topic is a matter I will leave for experts in foreign affairs.

  4. NotPoliticallyCorrect says:

    Brian, so what do you think this guys motivation for this film was? Maybe the lack of understanding by many, especially in the U.S.. He may have had a close friend or family member who was beheaded, crucified or one of many other atrocities over there? Would it have mattered to you or anyone then?

    “Had they also guessed that their murderous rampage would have us questioning the very framework of our democracy – the right to free speech – they would have again, and unfortunately, been correct.”

    They did not guess on this one, they did it, and are trying for more. Just as you stated in the part with “fighting words”. If you have not noticed, our First Ammendment Rights are diminishing more and more every day, with or without their help.

    “Burn your own flag and see what happens”

    People have already been doing that, here in the United States. What happens if an American burns a flag here? Not much if anything, you might be able to cite them for burning witout a permit. So why should we be concerned if those in the middle east etc. are burning our flag or theirs.

  5. BlaineCGarver says:

    Brian, don’t let Radicals define or control you. Hold your head high, embrace the constitution, and doom on any radical cult/country that says boo to you.

  6. BlaineCGarver says:

    Methinks that you’ve been shackled too long by politically correct restraints by your job. As a 20 year retiree of the Army, I was aware of First Amendment restraints that applied to the military. Do you have to be careful to correctly represent the TPD in this august tome?

  7. Brian O'Neill says:

    If you or any other reader picks up on a politically correct tone in my columns, it is probably my blundering attempt to maintain a balance between disparate opinons. To clarify, I left the Tacoma Police Department several years ago and transferred to another agency in south King County. I will always remember my tenure at TPD fondly and have a great deal of respect for Chief Ramsdell and his officers.

  8. even though our country has libel and slander laws, it is almost impossible to get a court to agree with it, unlike other countries that seem to wallow in political correctness. As I had mentioned in other threads, people are all too quick to throw the constitution under the bus without regard to people’s rights. As the old saying goes, “I may not like what you said, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

    Just take a look at the idiocy with our neighbors to the north and their human rights commission.

  9. BlaineCGarver says:

    Brian, I don’t want you to maintain a balance. This is an opinion piece, correct? Let’s hear your opinion, not what you think we want to hear.

  10. Brian O'Neill says:

    These columns do represent my opinion, Blaine. After years of writing reams of police reports, my style is not what one would call demonstrative. I aim for subtle points, for an objective tone and for clarity above all else. Not bad goals, at least in my opinion.

    I rarely find a topic worthy of a rant, but if I do I’ll let ‘er fly.

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