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Speaking terms

Military | What happens to free speech in a regulatory era?

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

Not sure what all the fuss is about. All this ruckus, I mean, in the military where our wonderful folks in uniform are being told they’re not going to be allowed to evangelize their colleagues. Or sometimes, if parties to the debate aren’t quite sure what the word “evangelize” means, we’ll use the term “proselytize” instead. Nobody seems sure which of the two is worse.

But I say this is much ado about nothing. It’s no big deal, whenever the bothersome blather of one citizen begins to invade the peace and quiet of another citizen, to try to find some way to quiet the offender. There’s always someone capable of thinking up an appropriate muzzle, and then applying it. In fact, I’ve got a special plan ready to apply to the current problem in the military.

I got the idea from the phone company. They refer to it as a “do not call” arrangement. If you sign up for “do not call,” it becomes illegal for salesmen, fundraisers, promoters, politicians, and other arm-twisters to call your number. If they do so—and especially if they persist—you can properly charge them with breaking the law. “Do not call” policies, I’ve discovered, are pretty common stuff.

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So using pretty much the same approach, I thought, what would be wrong with arming each member of the military with a sort of “do not evangelize” card? Then, whenever some ardently religious person begins imposing his or her faith on some soldier, all said soldier need do is to flash his “do not proselytize” card. If the “evangelist/proselytizer” persists, just call the cops, or in this case, the military police. But normally, of course, we won’t get near the place we need such drastic action. Just showing the card should do the trick.

But hold on! Wait just a cotton-pickin minute. What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong is that we would even think of the possibility of approving yet further restrictions on the freedom of speech.

What’s wrong is that we’ve quietly bought into the mindset of the thought police. We’ve inched down the road toward thinking there are people smart enough to decide which freedoms of speech should be protected and which can be compromised. 

By suggesting the analogy of the “do not call” policies of the phone company, I tempted you to agree that there might well be times when it’s OK to shut someone else up for a while. Did you scream in protest when you read my opening proposal? Did you ask, “Where on earth, Joel, are you headed?” Like the self-centered culture around us, we’ve become more jealous for our own space and our own peace and quiet than we are for the freedoms that make us a vibrant society.

We live in a regulatory era, and we live under a government that has one of its hallmark distinctives the habit of adding daily to the great catalog under which we must all live. (Catalogs, incidentally, are bigger and more burdensome than decalogues). Don’t our friends in the military have a sufficiently regimented life as it is—without adding restrictions about who may engage in what religious talk?

One of the beauties of he First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is its sweeping “no exceptions” approach to the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of religion. The “no yelling FIRE in a crowded theater” exception, like the “no handling rattlesnakes or drinking poison” as a mode of worship, are not that hard to understand. Beyond that, though, our whole inclination should be toward expanding—not constricting—such basic liberties.

What’s so ironically outrageous about the bureaucrats’ suggested restrictions on free speech among military personnel is that anyone anywhere even thinks about imposing such limits on the very uniformed people who have pledged their lives to protecting our freedoms. We should be ashamed to let such thoughts cross our minds. And yes, I am ashamed of my opening paragraphs.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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