Virtual Voices
Brendan Eich
Handout photo
Brendan Eich

Free speech and civil behavior

First Amendment

Overt government violations of our rights seem to be multiplying these days—NSA snooping, IRS persecutions of tea party organizations, and Obamacare indifference to Christian consciences. But two interesting free speech issues of a different kind arose last week, one involving an altercation with protesters over a flag and the other involving a politically incorrect donation by a tech company CEO.

During a protest in Albuquerque over the police shooting of a mentally ill homeless man, some expressed their displeasure with the United States by flying Old Glory upside down. Two off-duty soldiers took potentially violent exception to this irreverent handling of the flag, prompting two protesters on a scooter to drop their abused banner when the enormous patriots gave chase. Did the soldiers violate their fellow citizens’ free speech?

Meanwhile, newly promoted Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich resigned his corporate post under pressure after gay activists caused a fuss over a $1,000 donation he made six years ago to a campaign supporting California’s Proposition 8 to forbid same-sex marriage. Mozilla’s executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker announced the resignation with relief and contrition, apologizing that the company did not act fast enough. She described the company’s culture as one of “diversity and inclusiveness,” and supposedly Eich’s discreetly private support for traditional marriage threatened that culture. But did the moral alarm that drove him out violate his freedom of speech?

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Strictly speaking, our “right to free speech” limits only the government. The First Amendment reads in part, “Congress shall pass no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” But neither of these conflicts involves government action. They are both private retributions for acts thought to be disagreeable.

Societal freedom of speech has never existed, never will, and never should. We protect freedom of speech as a political right because our freedom to criticize the government is essential to keeping government limited and tame. When government can punish discussion that it finds politically threatening, fear replaces peace and liberty, and the people start serving government instead of the opposite.

But people moderate their speech amongst one another all the time. Sometimes it’s just good manners, and sometimes it’s prudence. For example, there are things you say in your home or among close friends that you would not jabber openly on the street or at work. You could offend people, invite an unwelcome argument, or even get punched in the nose, depending on the statement and the setting.

While people should certainly respect one another’s noses, even the obnoxious ones, the shaming effect of community backlash against indelicate speech (regardless of whether the community is right or wrong in its standards) is a large part of what restrains people from offensive public chatter. The liberty to shame is an important part of how a community teaches and maintains its common understanding of right and wrong.

But even recognizing that, whether it is a corporation’s business, regardless of how it understands itself as a community, to be taking notice of how an otherwise perfectly congenial employee has quietly donated his money is a separate discussion.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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