The line between safe and free speech is quite thin, or so Susan Estrich claims. In reality the line is actually non-existent because in stopping free speech you also stop the basic foundation of the constitution. However occasionally, under the correct circumstances it is more important to stop the speech, for whatever reason, than ensure the right to the same speech. Because even if it does deny the freedom of speech, it can also prevent the spreading of speech that would likely cause death or injury.
Many times throughout history the American ideal of free speech has been curtailed and ideas were stopped for being too dangerous or controversial. The “red scare” is once such incident, the repercussions of the red scare and the resulting McCarthyism has reverberated throughout American culture for nearly a century. Estrich says that the constitution does allow for some leeway in the adoption of free speech. Although not apparent on the surface but the red scare actually helped American society in some ways. The resulting creation of taboos against anything communist, allowed American democracy to flourish even further. Because communism by nature abhors free speech that does not agree with it, the resulting wave of anti-communism ensured that America would have free speech for many years to come.
Estrich warns against the resulting anti-muslim/anti-arab feelings that began to surface within a short time of massacre that occurred in the fall of 2001. Although unfortunately it is a common occurrence throughout history, it is easier to point your finger at the whole rather than the one. Yet at the same time, it is a required exercise in national security, assuming for a moment that all those responsible for the massacre are of the same race and religion, it would be prudent to look into the same groups for information. Estrich warns, “We are faced with real threats”[we must] meet those threats without” undermining the freedom and liberty that are the source of our power.”
In an ideal world there would be no need to look at our own citizens to find the guilty parties, but the world is far from ideal. As history has shown us – with events such as the mass firing of experts on Asia that took place after china became communist (which lead to the Korean and Vietnam war) ” the world is not ideal and when the government needs scapegoats it is easiest to blame its own people. Yet in this case it is not just a scapegoat the government is looking for, some of our own citizens helped to create the destruction.
The right to free speech is often defined also as the right to free action, although the exact wording of the constitution does not necessarily allow for this interpretation. Estrich uses the following example “[those who] did such things as print brochures and newsletters [during World War One] encouraging resistance to the draft [were prosecuted.]” The government has historically upheld the ideals of free speech, but when speech turns to action the government has been less than kind. During the 1960′s the National Guard was used to break up civil rights protests, in the 1920′s the government arrested communist supporters who handed out pamphlets, during the civil war President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, and countless other examples are available going back the Declaration of Independence. This has set up a disturbing precedent throughout history, the free speech we treasure so is still limited in some ways, far less than in other countries but it is still limited.
Which in turn brings up several questions, how much free speech is necessary to uphold the constitutional ideals? Or who gets to draw the line? These questions have had a lot of debate over the past 230 years. Clay Jenkinson says, “Ideas are sometimes dangerous, but not as dangerous as the government that would restrain them.” But fierce debate occurs when these questions are brought up to a group; the conflicting opinions reflect the various opinions the government has had over the years. Although currently the government can stop free speech it deems will incur imminent lawless action, it is hard to prove and harder to enact.
Susan Estrich’s editorials The Thin, Thin Line Between Safe and Free although, not the most thought provoking article ever written, does bring up the questions in a manner that is important to the modern times and creates a fertile ground from which debates about the issues of the past and how they are affecting us in modern times can develop.