This country has a long and cherished tradition of respecting freedom of speech. It’s important to remember, though, that freedom of speech is not without its limits. The right to freedom of speech is not absolute — you can’t vandalize public property, for example, and then claim that you were simply taking advantage of your right to freedom of expression. If your speech crosses a certain line, you’ll face legal consequences.
But if what you say doesn’t cross the legal line, but is simply unacceptable, inappropriate or offensive, you may face other consequences. It’s important to remember that the First Amendment bars the government from punishing you for what you say, but it doesn’t keep your employer, friends, co-workers or neighbors from applying a punishment of their own. There’s a difference between the boundaries of legality and the boundaries of good taste.
Recently, we’ve seen two examples of speech that crosses the line into the unacceptable — from opposite coasts and from opposite political views. One came from Gov. Paul LePage, who left an inappropriate voicemail for state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook. LePage’s message certainly crossed the boundaries of good taste, and he owes Gattine a personal apology. He also owes an apology to Maine’s LGBT community, as his use of profane slang referencing sexual orientation is an insult to them.
However, calls for LePage to resign or to be impeached simply because he said something offensive are clearly partisan overreactions. LePage was elected twice by the people of Maine, and those results shouldn’t be overturned just because he spoke his mind, no matter how ill-advised those comments might have been. Democrats had two chances to defeat LePage, and they don’t get the chance for a do-over. Maine Democrats are free to make whatever arguments they’d like to voters, but if they continue to field mediocre candidates with no better arguments than opposing LePage, they’ll continue to lose.
On the other coast, controversial speech came from a more surprising source: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick chose not to stand during the national anthem before a preseason game, in protest of racial inequality and in support of the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. Kaepernick, of course, is not the first to use this form of protest, nor will he be the last. Choosing not to stand during the national anthem is clearly protected speech, and both the National Football League and the San Francisco 49ers have made it clear he won’t be punished for his actions.
That doesn’t mean Kaepernick’s speech was well informed or well chosen, however. By sitting out the national anthem and the American flag, he was disrespecting everything those symbols represent — not just one specific policy. He was also showing a lack of respect for those who fought to protect his rights. He, too, owes an apology. He owes an apology to every American who has served this country honorably, as their sacrifices should be honored by all Americans regardless of our policy disagreements.
America is about freedom, but it’s also about responsibility. With every right should come the recognition that abusing it will have costs. In both of these cases, ill-advised speech has likely driven the members of the public further apart, rather than toward any kind of solution for the underlying issues the speaker had hoped to address. Instead of focusing attention on very real problems, they’ve managed to focus attention on themselves.
They’ve shown why, rather than drawing attention with personal attacks, symbolic protests, and controversial comments, we should all come together to work on real solutions. That’s a lot harder than simply yelling the loudest, but it’s the only way we can actually move forward.