Talk Is Cheap, But Not Always Free

Wearing a t-shirt with Arabic writing won’t keep you from boarding a plane, right?

And trying to advise high school students that they might want to consider a career outside the military is no big deal, yes?


The menacing t-shirt

The menacing t-shirt

Free speech has sometimes been one of the great American rallying cries: We talk about it reverently and claim it unites us. But in the post 9/11 world (hell, even before it), when people try to exercise that constitutional right, the reality of what some Americans think about free speech emerges: Talk about it all you want, but shit, don’t actually try to practice it.

In the first instance cited above, Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born U.S. resident, was about to board a Jet Blue flight. He wore a shirt that said, in both English and Arabic, “We will not be silent.” I’m not sure exactly what it meant, but you can come up with a few interpretations, none of which, I don’t think, would be considered obscene or likely to incite violence. Regardless, Jet Blue and TSA officials would not let him board unless he covered up the shirt, which he did.

The killer pamphlets

The killer pamphlets

In the other case, Sally Ferrell, a North Carolina Quaker, asked a local school superintendent if she could present material when military recruiters came to local schools. As ant-war activists had done elsewhere around the nation, she wanted to let kids know that joining the military – and perhaps losing their own life while taking others’ – was not their only option if they weren’t going to college. The superintendent said no. He wasn’t going to let her in so she could “rip apart the military.”  The local school board backed him up.

In both cases, it’s pretty clear that the heightened paranoia and jingoism since 9/11 enflamed the censors, who obviously aren’t clear on the concept of the 1st Amendment. Of course, they’re not alone, since so many lawmakers and judges also seem to have a problem deciphering “Congress shall make no law…” (Yet, as I’ve pointed out here before, the more convoluted 2nd Amendment leads some people to think a machine gun in every home – or at least a handgun – is A-OK.)

The Jet Blue case has a happy ending, sort of. The guy sued the airline and the TSA officials, who recently settled out of court for $240,000. The defendants, however, say they only paid up to prevent more legal expenses; neither Jet Blue or the TSA admits any wrongdoing. In North Carolina, the woman has just recently brought suit against the school system.  She just wants the right to present her material without any hassles. The school system has so far refused any kind of compromise.

I learned about both of these free-speech cases from the Freedom Museum, based here in Chicago. It’s part of the McCormick Foundation, which was set up by the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The museum sends out regular emails highlighting issues relating to the 1St Amendment and other relevant issues. Visit the museum online if you’d like to sign up for the updates. And try to remember what’s pretty much the basic premise of the 1st Amendment: Free speech means nothing if you stamp out speech you don’t necessarily want to hear.


~ by mburgan on January 9, 2009.

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