“I may not agree with agree with what you say, but I will defend unto death your right to say it.”
When I was in a world history class in high school, our teacher threw out this quote and asked us to raise our hands if we agreed with it.
My hand shot up.
And then I looked around.
I was the only one.
I was shocked.
It made perfect sense to me.
The teacher asked me to defend my position. I have no idea what I said. I am not much of a debater. But I do know I stood my ground.
Obviously that interaction made an impression on me, and I have often gone back to check to see if I still agree with it.
And I have always answered, “Yes.”
It is a restatement of our First Amendment right of free speech. And we all know that right does not extend to shouting “fire” in a crowded room.
I am now asking myself about when someone doesn’t actually shout “fire,” but comes perilously close. How close does someone actually have to come to crossing the line in using provocative rhetoric before we say, “Yes. That is the equivalent of shouting fire, and we have to stop that set of words from going out into the ether”? In other words, when do we have to say, “No. You can’t say that. It is hate-speech. You might incite someone to do something harmful”?
But, what is the line that can’t be crossed? Who can draw that line?
Who has the authority to cut someone off? Shut someone down? Arrest them? Take their guns away?
So, do I still stand by defending someone’s right to say something even if I don’t agree with it? Even if I perceive it as vitriolic and racist?
No. I don’t.
We don’t have the right to incite hatred, violent acts or murder — to dehumanize, hurt and abuse with our words.
No. We don’t.
I do have the responsibility to see in your eyes the part of me that lives in you as a child of the universe.
I do have the responsibility to understand that as a human being I carry you in my being and recognize you as part of my human family.
Name calling and making people who are different than me an “other,” an object, so that it makes it easy for me to harm you, is not what the First Amendment is about.