First Amendment and Ego

Speaking for the sake of making a splash, or the exercise of power for its own sake in suppressing speech, aren’t exercises of a fundamental right or of a fundamental responsibility attached to that right except in the narrowest, most technical sense.

One example is Pastor Robert Jeffress, a senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, and his remarks about Mormonism.  Pastor Jeffress said this, in part:

Evangelical Christians should not vote for Mitt Romney because he’s a Mormon, therefore not a real Christian.  Historically, evangelical Christianity has never embraced Mormonism as a branch of Christianity. Mormonism has always been treated as a cult.

This view, that Mormonism isn’t Christian, and an extension of that view, that not being Christian, Mormonism is somehow bad (which does not seem to be included in any of Jeffress’ remarks), are well-known and long-standing.  And controversial.  So what are we to make of the timing of Jeffress’ remark, in the middle of a heating up Republican primary campaign season in which a Mormon has a significant lead and a fellow Texan is fading rapidly?  Did this remark add anything to the contest that wasn’t already well-known?  Did it clarify anything?

I think not.  I think it was simply a man wanting to be controversial for its own sake, and so he was going to speak, just because it’s his right to do so.  If this remark was simply an ego trip, then the good Pastor has committed the sin of pride.

Here’s another example.  Some days ago, the leadership of the University of Wisconsin-Stout decided to censor the speech of one of its professors.  This article contains a description of a more or less successful resolution to the censorship matter, and it carries links to the original case.  To summarize, University leadership took down a poster that Professor James Miller had put near his office as a tribute to a television series and the series’ lead character.  Why?  Because the leadership thought they could get away with it.  When Prof Miller responded with this poster, they took it down, too, and threatened him with jail if he persisted in exercising his rights.  This second time, they acted both because they thought they could get away with it, and because with their egos on the line, they thought they had to get away with it.

Again, this time from the censorship side, no useful purpose was served here.  The University leadership pretended to concern about posters promoting violence, but as Gregory Lukianoff points out in the linked article, the quote on the first poster was simply a demonstration of the concept of fair play—as this “leadership” would have discovered, had they bothered to investigate first, and shoot second.  And the second poster was simply a (highly warranted) response in defense of free speech.

Although the University has been forced to recant, sort of, the incident is demonstrative of the other side of this ego-as-free-speech question: I’m better than that; the law doesn’t apply to me.

The First Amendment isn’t about the ego trips.  It’s about being able to say something serious and be able to be heard, no matter how unpleasant the truth being spoken might be.  And censorship of speech has no place at all.

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