I sat in last period history class, my eyes fixed on the clock. “Twenty more minutes” I mumbled to myself, “twenty more minutes until freedom.” I was hardly engaged in the day’s discussion topic which was the current status of a post 9/11 world. I casually listened to the ideas of my classmates as I chewed my grape flavored bubble gum and doodled on my notebook, blowing bubbles and quietly popping them with my tongue in an attempt to pass the time. My teacher rambled on about how Saddam Heussein’s time to disarm is up and how Al Qaeda must be destroyed. One particular point of view from the boy sitting next to me brought my attention back to the discussion. “Actually, the U.S. gave Saddam Hussein the chemical weapons he is using, and the CIA helped him find the targets to use them on. It is their own fault he has access to these weapons and President Bush is moron. He doesn’t know how to get them back, he just talks big because he is trying to make a name for himself as an active President.” I was shocked by the boldness of the comment but it was nonetheless an interesting perspective. I looked to our teacher to see his response. Our usually very open history teacher was obviously offended. The class was silent for what seemed like an eternity, before he snapped “Actually you are wrong, and that kind of thinking will not be tolerated in this classroom.” My teacher then dismissed my classmate from the discussion. I was shocked that a student was punished for having a valid opinion and for voicing it. I began to wonder if freedom of speech is actually free, or if there is in fact always some consequence for having your own opinions.
The recent debate over terrorism and America’s reaction to it, has stirred controversy over the rights of free speech. Since the events of September 11, 2001, a large number of people have admitted that they believe the government should have a say over what is being broadcasted and printed The request for government censorship and suppression of free speech following 9/11, is nothing short of an infringement on our Constitution. As Americans, how can we claim be such strong defenders of free speech, and then turn around and put limitations on what we can say regarding the current status of the world?
For years, Americans went unchallenged and uncontested for their views about the government, the president, and politics. Television names such as Larry King and Ted Koppel devoted hours of tv air time expressing their hatred for this country. But now in a post 9/11 world, Americans are expected to have nothing but nice things to say about the government, President Bush, and the war on terrorism.“We are only free to say the things we are told to say, and which have already been censored and approved by the thought police” (Moyers). Instead of embracing and debating negative opinions of individuals we are criminalizing them and “‘Unfree speech’ may be a more accurate definition for our current politically correct society” (Payne).
Recently, the best-selling country trio the Dixie Chicks, came under intense fire for a comment that was made during one of their concerts in London. During the show on March 10, 2003, the lead singer of the band Natalie Maines, told the crowd, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas” (Cotterell). Even thought there was nothing constitutionally wrong with Natalie Maines’ opinion, the Dixie Chicks felt backlash. Over 6,000 responses regarding the comment were immediately posted on Kansas City’s WDAF AM radio website. Angry fans in Louisiana hired a bulldozer to demolish Dixie Chick CD’s and other related material while another country music station in Missouri put out a trash can for people to dispose of their CDs. Vandals attacked group member Emily Robison’s property as a result of the comment and Natalie Maines received hate mail and death threats from offended fans. If as Americans we are able to speak freely, then why did the Dixie Chicks face this kind of reaction?
The Chicks were not the only ones being condemned for their comments since September eleventh. Bill Maher, the host of the late night talk show ‘Politically Incorrect,’ was lambasted for poking fun at the hijacked planes. WALATv, more commonly known as ABC, cancelled the show immediately after an outcry from viewers when Maher called the U.S. “cowardly” despite its comical context.“I pay a horrible price for speaking out,” Maher said after people refused to acknowledge that his comment was a joke (Vernon). The termination of ‘Politically Incorrect’ was nothing short of an attack on the constitutional right to free speech and it is even more perplexing that the incident occurred in the heart of our nation’s capital Washington D.C., where WALA Tv is located. Bill Maher was not allowed to finish out his television contract because his humor was not in accordance with the majority of viewers. It is almost as if the public has more power than the first amendment for post 9/11 free speech. They were able to ‘blacklist’ Bill Maher and the Dixie Chicks. The popular actor and producer Sean Penn also experienced unfair treatment due to his antiwar stance. A lawsuit was filed just last month accusing film producer Steven Bing of “reneging on an agreement to pay Penn $10 million to star in a proposed movie, after he spoke out against the war with Iraq” (Whiteman). Sean Penn had recently visited Baghdad and took out “a full-page advert” in the Washington Post, in which he criticized President Bush for his war plans (Whiteman). How is losing a movie role due to holding an anti-war position constitutional?
Celebrities are not the only ones who have suffered consequences for speaking freely about 9/11. There has also been a large number of incidents on college campuses where professors have caused a stir over free speech. “Professors who speak their mind are taken to task, sometimes faced with loss of tenure and even threatened with lawsuits for their indiscretion. At last count, there have been over 100 reported incidents at colleges across the country” (Moyers). At Orange Coast Community College in California, Kenneth Hearlson, a professor of political science, discussed the nature of Islam with his class. Hearlson was suspended for the content of his lecture which simply addressed the issues revolving around 9/11. “In America we should have the equal right to offend, to speak our minds, to be honest with what we think and believe, regardless of how it impacts someone else” (Payne). To me, this is the embodiment of the first amendment of the Constitution, and the Constitution is where the true uniqeness and greatness of this country lies. However, the repercussions and consequences for my classmate, the Dixie Chicks, Bill Maher, Sean Penn, and Professor Hearlson for exercising their first amendment right, gives fellow Americans the false impression that limits on speech regarding world issues should be imposed. As American citizens we should not repress our thoughts and opinions for “fear of offending anyone, or for being sued-or jailed,” but we should be strong and independent, and exercise the right we claim to fight to the death to protect. (Payne).