The U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion earlier this week in which it held, somewhat surprisingly, that a clothing designer could, in fact, trademark a new line of clothing with a name that was, in the eyes of some, offensive. Picture the F word, but change the last letter to a “T” and you’ll have his brand. Did you see what I did there? I declined to type out a world the court just said was OK. Why did I self-censor?
Well, basically, I’m trying to make a point and I don’t want to unnecessarily offend any of my delightful readers. But the key notion there was self-censor, not a government minder telling me what I can and cannot say. It’s ok for me and you to decide in our own lives what type of words or phrases we want to use, and it’s not ok for the government to dictate word choice to us, with a few very specific exceptions, such as child pornography and lying in a commercial. And, frankly, unless you have a criminal intent behind your dishonest speech (e.g., “Our new soda can never runs out of soda”), what you say is up to you, right?
The Colorado Supreme Court is hearing arguments on an interesting case involving free speech. It seems that after a particular school shooting (isn’t it terrible that several come to mind?) one young person posted to Twitter a few thoughts about his firearm and his intentions. He posted that “My 9 [mm pistol] is never on vacation” and to another person warned him that “Trust me, I’m not afraid to shoot.” Scary stuff, but is it protected speech? The Colorado Supreme Court will let us know, and I won’t be surprised if this case ends up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
I’ve mentioned before that I am what I call a “Hugo Black absolutist” on free speech. The late Supreme Court justice argued that all speech is protected. He was talking mostly about porn movie cases that got to the court. Lower courts ruled on whether a particular dirty film was “utterly and completely without redeeming social value.” So, a few clever movie makers added scenes wherein the characters stopped what they were doing to reflect on Shakespeare or Aristotle, thus adding “value” to their work. Justice Black never went to any of the screenings of such films for the court, as he argued they were all protected, and I agree with him, mostly.
But I do admit that the slope becomes more slippery in cases such as the Colorado case mentioned above. I had a creepy stalker-ish guy during my run for Congress back in 2008, and his voicemails and emails troubled me. I did not, however, think that his words were in and of themselves illegal. However, if I had a child going to the same high school as the student who posted about his readiness to shoot, I might very well keep my kid home for a day or two until things got sorted out. Hypocrite much? Yes, sometimes I am.
One of the many things I like about Colorado and the Rocky Mountain west is that our culture here seems to be a little more “live and let live” than things appear to be back east. And while overall I think that’s a good thing, it does create challenges, be they words on a T-shirt or a Twitter post.
It is most certainly not the government’s job to tell us what morals we should have. And the government is not the word police. This is an idea that most certainly crosses the political aisle. Just take a look at some of the U.S. Supreme Court members who voted to let the gentleman put the F-word-ish shirt on the streets of our cities and towns: Thomas and Ginsburg, Kagan and Kavanaugh.
Basically, what the court told us, and what I think the Colorado Supreme Court likely will reiterate, is that you should expect to be offended, frankly, whenever you leave the relative safety of your bedroom (and that depends on whether you have a TV in there. If you do, expect to be offended there, too).
I don’t argue for a minute that a high school kid spouting off in social media about intended violence should be ignored. Rather, it should be seen as what I believe it to be: protected speech that is also a cry for help and grownup intervention — and I’m not talking cops, I’m talking parents and teachers and such.
Our society will always be better off with near-total free speech, wherein the citizens moderate themselves as they see best and raise their kids the same. We are, in effect, the custodians of our own free speech, so keep an eye on it. It could be gone quicker than you think.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.