Guest column: Free speech, an invaluable right

John Ragan

John Ragan

What are the limits on freedom of speech? Few would argue that the right of free speech is absolute at all times and under all circumstances. However, would anyone fail to concede that this liberty is one of the most basic rights?

Courts have observed that free speech consists of “utterances” that are essential parts of the exposition of ideas. Nonetheless, these same courts have also held that it does not extend to “utterances” that are obscene, profane, libelous, or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.

For example, this liberty does not give someone the right to falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Likewise, it does not permit one citizen to creditably and imminently threaten another with unwarranted, physical violence.

On the other hand, courts have ruled that free speech cannot be restricted simply because it could cause discomfort or may be unpleasant to those who might hear it. Likewise, grounds do not exist to censor free speech just because the expression of a viewpoint or belief may be unpopular, not shared by other citizens, or not shared by government officials and employees.

In the name of free speech, among other rights, some citizens ostensibly think that they have the liberty to semi-permanently “occupy” property that is not theirs. They do so, claiming that they are protesting. “Protesters” persist in this claim even though a number of them cannot articulate against what, specifically, they are protesting.

Nonetheless, without the abuse of other people’s property, none would deny the right of protesters to “peaceably assemble to petition their government for redress of wrongs through free speech.” In fact, many Americans would probably agree with Voltaire’s famous words: “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.”

Practically speaking, Thomas Jefferson gave us a definition of liberty that readily applies to freedom of speech among many other rights: “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

When these citizens are “occupying” property, public, or otherwise, on a full-time basis, they are denying its use to others. Therefore, the question must be asked where are the limits drawn around their liberty by the equal rights of others?

The same question can be asked of those who claim to be offended or emotionally distressed by the exercise of free-speech rights by other citizens. Absent credible threats of harm, obscenity, profanity, or libel, can the fact that someone is “offended” be justification for restricting free speech?

Courts have ruled that restrictions on such a basis are, in deed, violations of the liberty to exercise free speech, even among students in secondary schools. In fact, the court held in Chambers v. Babbitt, 145 F. Supp. 2d 1068, “…the constitutional implications and the difficult but rewarding educational opportunity created by such diversity of viewpoint are equally as important and must prevail under the circumstances.”

It would seem that there is judicial agreement with our very own Tennessee Constitution, Article I, Section 19, “… The free communication of thoughts and opinions, is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty…” (Excerpted)

Having sworn an oath to support both the U.S. Constitution and that of the State of Tennessee, I must agree with Voltaire. Furthermore, Benjamin Franklin’s words seem very appropriate as well: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Tennessee Rep. John Ragan is an Oak Ridge Republican who represents District 33 in the House of Representatives.

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