Valdosta, Georgia (TFC) – Amid a huge amount of controversy, students at Valdosta State University flooded onto the sidewalks to display their support for the American flag.
Recently, a group of students exercised their First Amendment rights and walked on the US flag as part of a demonstration. A woman attempted to stop their demonstration by stealing their flag and resisting officers who returned it to the rightful owners. This sparked a national debate over the treatment of the flag. Some suggested the only way to honor the freedoms represented by the flag was to suppress the freedoms of those that would use their rights in an unapproved way. Some even threatened the protesters with violence. Obviously, this is not in line with the Freedom of Speech.
(UPDATE: In a possibly related turn of events, one of the protesters who was threatened is alleged to have brought a firearm on to the campus.)
Luckily, the students of Valdosta understand Freedom of Speech better than most. The students that repeatedly witnessed the demonstration that included walking on the American flag held their own rally. Rather than attempting to suppress the rights of others, they simply exercised their own. They displayed solidarity and a united front in support of something they believe in. As much as I criticized the actions of Michelle Manhart, I salute the actions of the students that let their voices be heard without interfering with the rights of others.
When it is said that “soldiers died for the flag,” this is what they meant. They died for the free exercise of the ideals behind the flag. They died so multiple viewpoints could be expressed. They died to have a free country. They didn’t die so people would live in fear of violence if they spoke their minds. They didn’t die so people would value a piece of cloth more than their unalienable rights.
Many people that painted themselves as freedom-loving Americans expressed disapproval with the school’s administration, but this response by the students shows very clearly that the school’s administration has built a school that teaches their students that the freedom of speech does not equate to the freedom to never be offended.
The Freedom of Speech is a major piece of the freedom we enjoy in the United States. It is protected, not granted, by the First Amendment. The Freedom of Speech is one of the most important rights human beings are born with. It is also one of the most controversial and therefore the most confusing. It does not have to be.
Freedom of Speech vs The First Amendment
The Freedom of Speech is an unalienable right that exists with or without the First Amendment. You are born with a Freedom of Speech. The mechanism by which the United States tries to protect it is called the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects a citizen only from governmental infringement on Free Speech rights. It does not protect against another citizen’s attempts to silence speech. However, your Freedom of Speech is unalienable. It cannot be forcibly silenced by anyone. An attempt to silence speech through physical action is a violation of Free Speech rights, but not First Amendment rights unless it was a government agent that attempted it.
The Freedom of Speech gives a person the ability to openly say just about anything as long as it is not a direct threat to public safety. “Direct” is a key word. Somebody can praise dangerous behavior, but they can’t incite it. That’s a thin line to walk and is the only genuinely difficult part of understanding Free Speech.
“In a just society, Judge Billy Bob would be executed for letting that rapist walk free” is Free Speech in most instances. There are contextual elements that may change that. If that same sentence was said while the speaker was handing a firearm to someone, it would not be free speech. “You should kill Judge Billy Bob” is not free speech, because it is an incitement to violence. In times of revolution these lines become more blurred and may be deemed free speech, but only if the speaker’s side wins the conflict.
Other than that, the Freedom of Speech is very easy to understand. People can say whatever they want. People can spout the most ignorant, hateful, and idiotic statements you can imagine and it’s Free Speech. The Freedom of Speech assures that you will be offended at some point. If a person believes in protecting the Freedom of Speech, they will inevitably find themselves working to protect the Free Speech rights of those whose opinions they oppose.
If you value the Freedom of Speech, here’s a list of things you have to deal with:
Defacement of holy books
Defacement of the US flag
Pro- or Anti-Abortion literature
Bomb making manuals
Denials of scientific facts
There are hundreds of other offensive forms of speech, but most readers will find something to be opposed to above. If you value your Freedom of Speech, you can’t attempt to suppress it. You can only counter it with your own speech. That is exactly what the students at VSU did.
If you are so opposed to a certain type of speech that you want it suppressed, understand that you must grant the power over your own speech to the government. The government can’t even keep the roads paved. Do you really want them in charge of the flow of information?
On a more personal note, I’ve made it very clear how I feel about flag worship. That being said, I’m extremely proud of the VSU students. They may be blindly worshipping the flag like a religious icon, but they at least understand what the flag represents. That’s more than I can say for Michelle Manhart.