On Defining Dissent, Treason

This weekend, I noticed and posted at Central Sanity what I found to be an intriguing dichotomy: Two attempts to limit the free expression of opinions, one from the left (taking issue with planned protests of Ahmadinejad’s Columbia U. appearance) and one from the right (labeling war protestors as treasonous).

Yesterday, an anonymous commenter made several points on that post, concluding:

Does anyone truly believe freedom of speech should be unfettered? Are you willing to allow racists to use racial slurs on your blog? Some speech gives cause for people to use sticks and stones to break others’ bones. Reasonable limitations on speech helps keep our society civil.

Point taken. We can’t falsely scream “fire” in a crowded theater. But beyond that one precise hypothetical example, where else do we draw the line? Some would err on the side of limitation; they’d rather risk too many limits than allow too many “dangerous” words. Others (including me) would err on the side of openness; we’d rather risk too many “dangerous” words than wake up to find well-intentioned limits encroaching on our right to peaceably assemble and speak our minds.

Picking up and expanding on my questions of that anonymous CS commenter: How do we productively distinguish dissent from treason? What entity do we trust, and comprised of whom, to make these judgments? When considering those who argue against the current war in Iraq, how do we decide (or can we) that Chuck Hagel’s or Ron Paul’s speech is more legitimate than Nancy Pelosi’s or Harry Reid’s? If there’s no difference in their fundamental message, is it their word choice that makes the difference? If so, by what method do we determine the words that are acceptable vs. those that are not?

It’s a classic slippery slope, although I don’t think the answers are particularly complicated: Live and let live. Speak and let speak. Recognize that opinions never killed anyone and that what we say matters far less than how we individually and collectively act.

Go ahead, call me naïve.

Author: PETE ABEL

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