Lewis H. Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine, once said that leadership “…imposes on both leader and follower alike the burdens of self-restraint.” In other words, self-control as a national value is vital in any democracy, especially in one such as ours with a powerful constitutional safeguard on expression.
Last week, President Obama offered us such a lesson on the First Amendment when an unexpected heckler managed to crash his invitation-only speech at National Defense University, shouting to him about the prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo and the importance of closing the facility. POTUS let her talk for a minute and encouraged the audience to listen to what she had to say. When he asked to finish his point, she continued to persist. Obama finally stopped her, “Part of free speech,” he said, “is…you listening.”
The miracle of modern technology has given voice to the unheard and empowered the weak. It has created new communities, and opened the door for an unprecedented level of dialogue among other citizens and strangers. It has connected people who’ve lost touch. It has made once lonely people feel part of a bigger social circle.
It has also amplified the noisiest among us and turned people who had once valued social skills into distracted, self-absorbed citizens. No one seems to be listening any more—to anybody on any issue. If they were, empathy, persuasion and open-mindedness might have a chance in contemporary life. Instead, increasing numbers of people believe that influence is about shouting the loudest.
In this context, the First Amendment of the Constitution is now being increasingly evoked—some would say abused—at nearly every turn. This is the price, perhaps, of failing to provide more than a half a semester of civics for students in most of the nation’s high schools. Earlier generations, at least, were steeped in the notion that there is no freedom without responsibility.
The Washington Post’s venerable national security columnist, Walter Pincus, wrote this week about the leaking of highly sensitive national security documents. “When will journalists take responsibility for what they do without circling the wagons and shouting that the First Amendment is under attack?” he asked. Citing a case currently under investigation, he points out that “…I believe the First Amendment covers the right to publish information, but it does not grant blanket immunity for how that information is gathered.” It does not, he went on, include breaking the law.
On another front, federal law enforcement officers have also been investigating a former U.S. Marine and several active-duty Marines for posting threatening and “lewd” messages aimed at President Obama and Congressman Jackie Speier (D-CA). According to USA Today, when Speier apparently reported this to the authorities, these same bloggers “referred to her in vulgar terms and accused her of trampling their First Amendment rights.”
We will find out in the coming months the results of these two cases. But President Obama is right in a larger sense. There is a flip side to our rights. Freedom belongs to everyone, not just to those who outspokenly “exercise” their rights. Constitutional protection may assure you a lot, but it was not intended – as Obama pointed out – to be a license to scream without listening. It does not give the media the right to break the law for the sake of a scoop. Nor was it created so you could slander someone or gratuitously ruin another person’s image or reputation just to get attention. Without responsibility and self-control, the road that lies ahead leads to strife, an erosion of our collective security and safety—and possibly chaos.
Senator Elihu Root, one of this nation’s greatest public servants, summed it up best just after the turn of the twentieth century. “Religion, the philosophy of morals, the teaching of history, and the experience of every human life point to the same conclusion—that in the practical conduct of life the most difficult and necessary virtue is self-restraint.”
It is only in this way that democracy, and the fairness that it promises, can thrive.
Cornell Law School has this to say about the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States:
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. Freedom of expression consists of the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the implied rights of association and belief. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments.