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Opinion: Free speech is embattled, misunderstood

The prolonged hubbub surrounding Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter, calling U.S. Representative John Lewis a “racist pig” on Hunter’s Facebook page, is a symptom of our societal breakdown around the First Amendment in a battle to determine whether freedom of thought will survive when pitted against a new generation who are unwilling to debate or resolve issues, choosing bureaucratic intrusion and litigation instead.

Curiously, Rep. Lewis has remained silent, dealing with his own foibles like disobeying Congressional rules by staging a sit-in at the House chamber and lying on national television about his inaugural attendance.

Hunter did admit to a poor choice of words.

Certain people have called for Hunter’s resignation because of his opinions expressed on his personal Facebook page. Being offensive is protected speech as long as the person is not threatening or violent, and surely our society’s ability to tolerate such is the seal and guarantee of a truly free nation.

Representative Maxine Waters of California referred to the Trump team and cabinet as a “bunch of scumbags” on MSNBC. An outrageous statement, but should she resign?

With micro-aggressions, trigger warnings, safe spaces and intellectual censorship, we are becoming a nation so weak, void of self-esteem, risk-averse and so starving for validation that our personal freedom of expression is being pilfered.

Universities are using authoritarian means to force an artificial harmony and civility on campuses using bias detection systems that encourage students to report fellow students and faculty who say things they believe to be offensive. Some campuses have tiny mandatory “free speech zones,” obviously indicating that free expression is banned on the remainder of the campus.

The University of Northern Colorado actually warned students not to say “All lives matter.” Likewise, University of Wisconsin campuses discouraged students from saying “illegal immigrant,” or “illegal alien” and “politically correct.”

Some of us can remember roughly 50 years ago the protests on college campuses for civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War, a time when the answer to offensive speech was rebuttal with more free speech. However, today we see the rapid decline, with Emory University students citing “genuine concern and pain” when encountering Donald Trump’s name written in chalk on the sidewalk.

A Chief Judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit threw a local media publisher and his attorney in jail and fined them for wanting to openly report on judicial proceedings. The judge was quoted saying, “I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned.”

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse wants to use the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute, created to prosecute the mafia, to bring civil lawsuits against companies that fund climate research and reporting of which he disapproves.

Climatologist and former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech Judith Curry resigned over pressure regarding her ongoing statements over man-made climate change and the uncertainties and deficiencies of climate modeling. Others in climate science are meeting the same fate. The intolerance over freedom of scientific thought is astounding.

Naturally, if we are not a free people and forfeit the right of freedom of expression, eliminating the First Amendment, then our society is saddled with the burden of determining by what subjective standard we shall adhere to. and who gets to select that new standard? Acting as the bias police, Hunter’s critics commit the same offense by referring to him as “coward” and “chicken” in public meetings.

The main function of a constitution is authorizing restraint on government. Our current state of affairs has us crying foul whenever someone uses words that hurt our feelings, calling for government action to correct whatever is subjectively determined bias.

Sadly, we are creating an Orwellian nanny-state where people have been led to believe that they have the right to not be offended, but at the same time they claim to believe in freedom of speech. The two are not compatible.

Fayette County had an issue similar to the Hunter situation where a commissioner made offensive comments toward a specific group on Facebook and in a public meeting. As the chairman at the time, I was chided for allowing the commissioner to spew the offensive comments uninterrupted. My response was simply that the commissioner had the right of free speech and the constituents deserved to hear the views of their elected official.

The commissioner was not re-elected by the informed voters. Had he been forced to suppress those views, but still believing them, he might have been re-elected. Thus, free speech works.

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