There’s been a lot of talk about free speech in the wake of the attack on the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. While it’s clear the attackers crossed a line by using violence to stifle ideas, it’s useful to consider just how free “free” speech is in our culture.
In particular, we must be careful not to confuse language and ideas with deeds. For example, the commonly used term f-bomb simply denotes
the use of a vulgar word. But words are not bombs, and even suggesting the comparison seems hostile to free speech.
Of course, joking about bombs can get you in deep trouble, especially at
airports. One Venezualan doctor was fined almost $90,000.00 for jokingly saying he was carrying C-4 explosives.
And somewhere along the line, we in the U.S. seem to have tacitly accepted the idea of free speech zones, designated areas where
protesters can carry signs, wear clothing with slogans, etc. Demonstrators are corralled in fenced areas far away from the people for whom those protests are intended. According to the Constitution, the entire United States is a free speech zone,
but we have allowed that freedom to be curtailed to avoid the risk that our leaders might be exposed to alternative ideas.
If we allow language to become weaponized, we harm everyone.