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Free speech and responsible speech

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We Americans boast routinely about free speech, being so proud of the right that we put it smack at the top of the Bill of Rights. So, perhaps, it should be. But there are unfortunately degrees to which it must be seen negatively.

There are folks who opine that free speech means the right to say offensive things. They forget that there are two ways in which someone is offended: either when the listener is a fool, or when the speech in question is genuinely offensive.

No one has a moral right to voice offensive remarks solely for the sake of making offense; that is simply rudeness at best and insulting and vulgar at worst. To say that they have such a right under the guise of free speech is really only to hide irresponsible behavior behind a pretty face. As rights only grow from responsibilities, it is reasonable to argue that the right to speak freely comes from the obligation to speak truthfully, in the reasonable interests of ourselves and the general society, and considerately, so far as circumstances may allow.

Still, the only way to really stifle morally offensive speech is censorship, and the problem with censorship is that it is only good when good people are in charge. When bad people hold the reigns, then good and necessary free speech will be prohibited. It is a risk we cannot take.

In the end, though, no one has the right to say offensive things, but merely the practical option of expressing them freely. No one has the right to be wrong in the truest sense of the term, but only the free will to be in the wrong. Until we understand that, we really won't understand the importance of a well regulated freedom at all.

Rights must be viewed in their proper perspective. They are not, not a one of them, open ended and subject to mere personal interpretation. We may treat some select few of them as absolute, but only due to abject necessity. Actions which beg the true nature of free speech do not promote but instead denigrate the right. They make us less than we can be and less than we should be. We should be good and decent people.

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