by Sen. Doug Whitsett
Political discourse before, during and following the recent elections seems to have been more divisive than usual. The rhetoric has often been inaccurate, sometimes intentionally misleading, or otherwise just plain malicious.
During the past several months, such dialogue was commonly employed at the national, state and local levels. Citizens have protested in the streets carrying acrimonious signage and chanting slogans that many find offensive.
Some of those demonstrations turned violent and resulted in personal injuries and significant damage to private property. Those responsible for injuries and property damage should be held responsible.
Many continue to express their outrage. They allege feeling upset, hurt, offended, or suffering personal insult by seeing, hearing or reading passionately expressed diverse political opinion.
Incredibly, many of our universities are the focus of this ferment of indignation. Several of the same campuses that developed “celebrating diversity” have become hotbeds of political correctness. Both students and faculty seek out safe havens where they are protected from free speech.
However, it is not all that divisive and acrimonious discourse that threatens our nation. Rather, it is the attempts to suppress the freedom to assemble and speak freely that is our greatest danger.
Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1755: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Throughout history, political despots have acquired and maintained tyrannical power by persuading their citizens to give up their freedom in exchange for security.
First, political leaders disarm their “subjects” by convincing them the confiscation of their weapons will create a safer society. Once their citizens have no means of self- protection, any who dare to express divergent political opinions are persecuted, prosecuted and often imprisoned. Hundreds of millions have lost their lives for expressing political opinions that are unpopular with their rulers.
Our nation’s founders clearly understood that inherent danger. Rough and tumble political rhetoric has been the American Way since before our constitutions were drafted. In 1765, more than 20 years before he helped draft the United States Constitution, John Adams, our Second President wrote: “Be not intimidated…nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberties by any pretense of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery and cowardice.”
His words are as true today as they were 250 years ago.
The first Amendment to the United States Constitution states in part:
Congress shall make no law…. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble…
Section 8 of the Oregon Constitution’s Bill of Rights states:
No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever; BUT every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right.—
Our founders clearly reserved for Americans the constitutional rights to freely speak, and write our opinions, on any matter whatsoever. Those rights of free expression are only limited by personal responsibility and the laws governing libel, slander and malicious lies.
In the United States, federal laws regarding defamation are closely tied to the First Amendment. In short, that body of law has consistently and reliably determined that opinion is not considered defamation in the United States.
The only expression that is not protected under our Constitutional free-speech provisions are false statements of fact that harm the reputation of an individual or business. Only those who willfully make harmful, declarative statements that can be proven false in a court of law can be lawfully prosecuted for what they say or write. This remains true, no matter how offensive some may consider the rhetoric.
Yet too many Americans are allowing ourselves to be intimidated from expressing our political views. We refrain from expressing our opinions out of our concern for the threat that others may consider our thoughts indelicate, impolite, offensive, indecent or even hateful.
Moreover, much of the press, the broadcast media and too many universities are quick to label dissenting opinion as hate speech. The tools of these would-be speech police are labels such as “racist,” “bigots,” “sexist,” “homophobe,” “misogynist” and “supremacists.”
They employ those terms to discourage opposing political discourse through applying peer pressure and using the media to create public shame and humiliation. They imply the threat of potential prosecution under laws that forbid “hate speech.” Their purpose is intimidation and their desired result is to quash opposing political discourse.
Our country was formed as a constitutional republic. It was to be ruled by duly enacted laws that conform to the principles enumerated in our Constitution. We all should respect that rule of law.
However, we must never give up our rights to freely assemble and to express our free and unfettered opinions. We must especially maintain our right to express our grievances regarding how well our laws comport with those constitutional principles.
No duly enacted law can constitutionally restrict our freedom to speak and write our thoughts and opinions. We still have the constitutional right to express our opinions to anyone, on any subject matter, whatsoever!
That right is under attack today to a greater degree than anytime during my lifetime. We must not succumb. It must not be our generation that trades essential freedoms for a little temporary security.
Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls