Opinion: Charlie, Miranda, and the First Amendment
Special to the Free Press
I was 5 years old when, after setting a plate of fried liver and potatoes on the table for lunch, Mrs. Becker, our babysitter, said, “you will eat it and be thankful.”
“What is it?” I asked, suspicious.
“Liver,” she said, adding a piece to my plate.
My stomach turned and I let out a very loud “YUK!” Before I could catch my breath, she’d back-handed me clean off my chair and not only made me eat the liver but gave me nothing to drink to choke it down with. It didn’t matter to me nor did I understand that was all the food they had and that they were sharing it with us; that they were poor German immigrants eking out an existence on a few acres of dry farmland, taking in kids after school for a few extra dollars. And it apparently didn’t matter to her that it was not OK for her to slap me off my chair no matter how bratty I was. (To this day, I still haven’t decided which was the greater abuse: when she slapped me off the chair or made me eat the liver.)
The old “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is lovely in theory, but too easily and sadly disproved — globally and in too many homes in our own communities.
No one, and I mean no one, should have to suffer or die for something they said or wrote.
Let’s face it. Words hurt us all the time. We hurt others with our words. We have the absolute freedom to say and print anything we want to anyone we want whenever we want. We can even do it ‘round the clock, grinding it out on social media for anyone or no one, day or night, who wants to consume it. We can send out all kinds of words: words of kindness; words of encouragement; words of prayer; words that educate and inspire; or words that criticize, incite, intimidate, antagonize, and provoke.
How many of us still mourn the loss of a friendship or two as a consequence of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time; something that was hurtful beyond repair. I sure have (sigh). To think that our choice of words, what we choose to express with our freedom of speech, is without consequence is naive at best.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; …” while, in contrast, Miranda guarantees our “right to remain silent” because “anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law …”.
And there lies the proverbial rub that seems to keep human civilization in an endless loop of abuser-victim to victim-abuser and on it goes.
We are guaranteed “freedom of speech” and “of the press,” but after that, we’re on our own, left to deal with the consequences of what we choose to say or publish. (Interesting that immediately following the right to say anything we want is the Second Amendment’s “right of the people to bear arms.”)
I can just imagine it: “Be warned Benjamin ol’ boy; say what you will about thy neighbor’s daughter while crossing his property, but remember that thy neighbor could be of an ill temper, misinterpret your comment as slanderous against his family’s good name, and respond by demonstrating upon you his great skill with the musket that he now has the right to bear.”
So, how do we reconcile our freedom of speech with the oft unpredictable consequences — reactions of both the sane and the irrational to what we’ve chosen to say with that freedom?
This, to me, is the paradox. We have the right to free speech and, at the same time, the right to remain silent because anything we say when exercising our right to speak freely can and will be used against us. The question is, by whom?
Krystyn Hartman, a Free Press guest columnist, is publisher of Grand Valley Magazine in Grand Junction.
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