Freedom of Speech: Our Right to Be Wrong
It isn't mentioned in the Bill of Rights -- or anywhere in the U.S. Constitution -- but, in my judgment, it's one of our most important inalienable rights. It has a kinship to freedom of speech, but I call it by another name: The Right To Be Wrong.
Like free speech, the right to be wrong has its restrictions. As noted by the Supreme Court of the United States, we do not have a right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. In other words, our right to free speech ends where other, conflicting rights begin.
Democracy could not exist without free speech. For a free people to govern themselves everyone must be free to express his views. It is only by a free exchange of views that seemingly insoluble problems can be overcome.
Free Speech Limits
In the real world, however, democracy exists only in a narrow political view -- even in America. If you're in the military services, you have very little free speech. If you dispute this, try telling your platoon leader what you think of his leadership abilities.
In the business world, you have constitutionally protected rights, but the workplace is hardly a democracy. If you question this, try telling your employer how his business could be run better.
If you're in school, try advising your teacher a better way to teach his class; if your in a hospital, try telling the nurse not to bother you until after breakfast; if you're on the golf course, try teeing off ahead of the foursome ahead of you.
Minority of One
Aside from such restrictions, free speech is designed to allow you to express opinions without fear. If we were all "yes men," the Bill of Rights would hardly be necessary, but, alas, some of us have opinions that are often anathema to the majority. Despite the fact that such opinions may be held by a minority -- often a minority of one -- they may be right -- or wrong. However, what is right, or wrong, is a subjective judgment and not always a majority opinion.
Neo-Nazi organizations and the Ku Klux Klan have memberships who hold opinions abominable to most of us, but they, too, have the right to be wrong -- as well as the right to be shallow minded, arrogant and stupid. But they frequently go well beyond simply being wrong; they deny, or try to deny, others their inherent human rights. It's important that any measure taken against them not infringe significantly on the rights of everyone else.
When they make public statements, they must take responsibility for them.
No Fear of Retribution
The rest of us -- from nonofficialdom -- shouldn't be muzzled, either. And, right or wrong, we can express our opinions freely without fear or official retribution. Naturally, we, too, must take responsibility for what we say.
Newspapers publish the opinions of their readers daily. Responsible editors wouldn't think of not printing a letter because they disagree with the writer. In fact, the whole idea of printing letters is to allow readers to express their unfettered views.
I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on July 13, 1998.