The First Amendment: How far is too far?

November 3, 2011

Honor, Political action


On October 31, 2011, I attended the presentation by Congressman Eric Cantor. I’m not writing about the content of his presentation, rather the actions of the protestors. I was surprised by how rude and disrespectful the protestors acted.

The first amendment states,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

As you can see, every United States citizen is guaranteed a right to voice their opinion. That is what is great about living in America. It is a unique right that not many countries tolerate.

Eric Cantor

Eric Cantor speaking at the University of Michigan

But does there come a point when the first amendment is being abused? At Eric Cantor’s event I thought that the wonderful first amendment was wrongfully abused. People stood outside and protested, which I believe is completely justified, but the people who protested inside of the
room that Eric Cantor was speaking in were incredibly disrespectful. Not only did they “boo”, interrupt, and shout during the congressman’s presentation, they stood up in the front rows, turned their back to Congressman Eric Cantor, and blocked the view for people who actually wanted to see and listen to the speech. I don’t care whether it is a republican or democrat speaker; I believe that acting so immature and rude is completely uncalled for.

I also found the fact that they were shouting out and interrupting what the congressman was trying to convey. I am sure that it would make a lot more sense if they were listening to what he was saying, rather than just shouting out things that were unrelated to the message he was trying to get across. For this reason, I believe the first amendment was abused.

Westboro Baptist Church

In other instances, such as the Westboro Baptist Church, many people feel that their protesting is completely wrong, but they insist they have the right granted by the first amendment of the constitution. The Westboro Baptist Church members protest at the grieving funerals of American soldiers. Should this be tolerated, because according to the constitution they have the right, or is it going too far?

Relating to the texts we have gone over in class, such as On Liberty by Jon Stuart Mill. Mill believes that freedom of expression is good for us, no matter what the circumstances, and if it is to be denied, it is taking something from the human race. What it is robbing the United States citizens of, is truth. Mill’s argument is not because god says so, or that we naturally have that right, but because freedom of expression is good for us. Policies that are good for us should be justified, thus, allowing anything to be said is in good nature.

But what if the protestors are immoral and absolutely wrong? According to Mill,
Argument from “Fallibilism”- How can you really know it’s true? We might be wrong. Even if we are pretty sure it is right, it is good to say we should not prevent challenges to the view because we may find out more information, gain a new perspective, and look into the idea deeper. Allowing ideas to be challenged will allow you to gain a clear perspective of the truth.

Who decides what is harmful?
According to Mill, it is the government. Governments are not always truthful. “Harmful” itself should be subject to debate. Mill says that truth will always come out in the end, so you should not worry about persecution.

Do you agree with Mill that no matter what the circumstances, everyone deserves the right of the first amendment, or do you believe there needs to be a line drawn to protect others from the freedom of speech? Do you think that it should not have to be a law; it should just be out of common courtesy, like at Eric Cantor’s event?

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5 Comments on “The First Amendment: How far is too far?”

  1. springsteen1 Says:

    Everyone deserves the first amendment. Period. However, I agree that violence is an exception. Again present here, anyone who purports to have a full and comprehensive level of understanding of what that level of violence is, its implications, or in what ways it should be interpreted or laid out, is simply wrong. There are courts for that.

    AS for the protesters, I agree with some of what they say – is it right that they protest the Majority Leader on a campus? It’s their right. If they were violent or absurd about what they said, however, I think it is fair to argue the same rules argued in (Snyder speaks at U – June 2011 – Michigan Daily) summer for the graduation speaker, Rick Snyder:

    If you don’t respect the man, his beliefs, his opinions, platform, etc. ,you should respect the office. I’ll admit, there may not be a single thing that ML Eric Cantor says that I agree with, but he is the Majority Leader of the US Congress — Mill would argue that he can say what he wants, we can say what we want, and we should be left alone to all extents to say what we want, express what we want, and how and in any ways we want to say / express it.

    Great post again, relevant, thought provoking, and Mill-invoking.

  2. bmauto21 Says:

    I completely agree with Mill. There should be no line drawn when it comes to the the first amendment. There are exceptions, like if you break the law, or if you present dangers to the government, especially when it comes to free speech. It shouldn’t have to be a law but if it was to be a law there is no better spot than the first amendment of the bill of rights. While there are these exceptions, the first amendment is part of everybody’s natural rights. There is no argument, the first amendment is the most basic law and part of the fundamentals of this country.

  3. kaitlinlapka Says:

    Well I agree that is disrepectful, it is fair. That’s like judging some one based on their table manners. They all have the right to be a the dinner party, but we may find it rude when they act contrary to the normal standards. Or maybe that’s a poor metaphor. Regardless, my point is that this is upheld by the First Amendment. Along with that wonderful right we are lucky to have as a country comes the right to act like a complete jerk and represent yourself poorly. I know from example. The Westboro Baptist Church actually came to my high school my senior year. They as adults targeted us kids, which outraged many community members. Especially since we are a liberal college city, it also further hurt community members for attacking kids in the process of discovering who they were. While I agree that things like this are unfortunate, disrespectful, and mean, I cannot agree that they are illegal. They are potected by the law, and we don’t have any way to stop them but learn from them. Like Mill’s argument says, we can learn more from error, making us one step closer to the truth. By learning what is wrong, we can gain further insight into what is right. Maybe the wrong-doers are benefitting society. For example, I know how to peacefully protest from Westboro Baptist Church because of what I saw, and how my community learned to react. You know how to behave respectfully and disagree with a high up member of our government/community because you saw people doing it in the wrong manner, and chose to learn about it and question it further here.

  4. dcmiller93 Says:

    I believe the rights of the protesters you mentioned, those at the Cantor event and the Westboro Baptists, should be protected under the first amendment despite their questionable nature. Personally, I vehemently disagree with both groups, in terms of content and delivery. I think the Cantor protestors came across as unintelligent and juvenile, two adjectives I would not necessarily extend to the cause they support. The Westboro Baptists are probably the most despicable group of people in this country as far as I’m concerned, but I would no sooner restrict their right to free speech than I would allow my own first amendment rights be curtailed.
    In regards to John Stuart Mill, I would argue that there are circumstances where free expression must be limited in some form. In the chapter after the one we read for class, he writes, “Acts of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavorable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind.” Using this, a case could be made to restrict the free speech rights of the Westboro Baptists on the grounds that they may cause psychological harm to those involved, but from Mill’s other writting it is clear that this is not what he intended.

  5. blakesimons Says:

    This is an interesting and well-thought out blog post, and as I read it, I had some interesting thoughts regarding the topic. Personally, I immediately tend to agree with Mill and that no form of speech can be suppressed. With that said, it seems that acts sometime go too far. Obviously, as stated above, violence cannot be tolerated, even if it is a form of free speech, but the acts of the protesters really got me thinking. Is it okay for protesters to intentionally try to ruin event and therefore, hurt the general happiness of the people around them?

    I personally think the acts of the protestors are valid but extremely inappropriate. Under the first amendment, the protestors are free to express themselves and act how they want at the speech. In my opinion, however, if the protestors got to a level where they were harming the experience for other citizens, then they are crossing the very thin line. Let’s say there were 100 people watching Congressman Cantor’s speech and 10 protestors: if the 10 protestors were so over the top with their free speech that they made it so the congressman could not give his speech, then I think that they would be abusing their free speech.

    In the case with the Westboro Baptist Church, I don’t think there is much argument that they are abusing free speech. Yes, there views are radical and opinions that I hold no respect for; however, they still hold the right to have an opinion. You draw upon the question, “But what if the protestors are immoral and absolutely wrong?”, but I think that argument is very fallible. As Mill argues, free speech cannot be denied on this charge because what society considers “wrong”, a minority may consider “right”. While I may think that considering homosexuality as a sin is morally wrong, people may consider it to be morally right, and it is my job as a United States citizen to respect this claim and hold it valid under the first amendment.

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