Speak up for freedom, civility

When one talks about “freedom of speech” or “free press” I often wonder if they really mean what the Constitution says. For instance, one cannot yell fire in a crowded movie theatre, but there is the question of whether or not they can legally post vulgar or obscene signage in their yards; even if those signs are directed toward their neighbors or the public in general. And when it comes to freedom of the press, there is a great deal of difference between what is reported as factual and what is opinion.

For instance, I write an opinion column, it is not meant to be based on scientific fact, unless I quote said fact and provide legitimate substantiation. When the publisher or editor of this paper writes an “opinion” piece, he qualifies it as such and not as a factual statement — it is his opinion.

Whether one is claiming the right to free speech or freedom of the press, when what one says or does is hurtful to another individual or to our country, then maybe there shouldn’t be so much “freedom.” In today’s new normal people have the privilege of saying almost anything they want on Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat and the many other social media platforms that have taken over our manner of communicating with one another. We hear of bullying, mean posts, disparaging comments in 140 characters or less all of which can lead to hurt feelings and even tragedies.

When it comes to fake news, if one is on Facebook, they can post anything they want and claim it to be truthful; and the unknowing or ill-informed reader may even believe it. The poster can claim freedom of speech as allowed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. If one is an elected official or a person in a powerful position there is some credibility that is attached to their post or tweet that may not be considered otherwise had it been posted by a regular John or Jane Doe. Words matter, and when spoken or written by someone of prominent stature they matter even more! I don’t believe (my opinion) that was what the writers of the Constitution were thinking when they wrote about freedom of speech and the free press.

Our Constitution is the one document that we, as Americans, are obligated to uphold and to respect; it is this document on which our laws are based. The First Amendment to the Constitution (para-phrased) states, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

What is missing from this amendment is the issue that speaks to morality, civility, honesty, and compassion. These principles we learn from our relationships with others, our religious beliefs and the idea of do unto others. It seems to me that these values have been lost in today’s society.

When one utters negative or nasty comments that are directed toward another because it is their “constitutional” right to do so, should they? When a nasty or hateful sign is posted toward a neighbor, should it be? When an article or opinion piece is written in the local newspaper stating something that borders on questionable facts, should an apology follow? We are all on this earth together, shouldn’t we be willing to rise above the bickering, name calling, and hate? And even when dealing with opinion pieces, such as this one, shouldn’t we check our facts?

In today’s world it has become too easy to be nasty. When we look at the various social media outlets, there is often something negative and mean spirited.

When it comes to the freedom of the press, take a look at the journalists who make their living covering stories that are not necessarily sexy or fun. These men and women go to college, work their way up through newsrooms and often take mediocre low-paying internships just to bring us, the American people, the news that is factual and without bias. Yet, they have become the whipping boys of many of our elected leaders who don’t like what is written about them. Let me remind you, there is a difference between news and opinion, albeit both are protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Now I am not saying that what is printed as news in the newspaper or shown on television is always factual and without bias; just take a look at any of the major networks. What I am saying is that for the most part what is reported by our professional journalists is generally fair and factual. I don’t think there is as much “fake” news as our President and many of our elected leaders would like for us to believe.

I am also not saying that an individual does not have the right to post signs in their yard or post their opinions on a social media platform. They do! But, one might want to stop and ask themselves what the signs and posts truly represent — fairness, honesty, civility, Christian morals, meanness, vulgarity, hate. What a person posts, whether on social media, their vehicle, or in their yard speaks volumes about their character.

Of late I fear that we are becoming a country that has lost its way and it makes me sad. We are too readily accepting of the anger and divisiveness that has permeated our society; it doesn’t have to be that way and we need to change it for our children and our children’s children and all of those who will come after us. Whether spoken or written, words matter.

My final thought on this is that we should each check our facts and be guided by our moral compass before we speak, write, or act. After all, Jesus said to us in Matthew 15:10-11, “And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”

Have a great day, and please be kind to one another.

Vicki Westling is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com