I give thanks for freedom of speech: If we still know what it means

Give me the right to speak freely, and I'll defend yours. Those who disengage are the real threats to democracy

By Brian Karem


Published November 24, 2022 10:00AM (EST)

Abstract freedom of speech illustration (Getty Images/Sean Gladwell)
Abstract freedom of speech illustration (Getty Images/Sean Gladwell)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

In October of 1863, just three months after the battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the fourth Thursday in November to be a National Day of Thanksgiving. One hundred and fifty-nine years later, we're still celebrating it annually.

Abe's proclamation harkened back to a similar effort from George Washington just a few short years after our nation emerged from the Revolutionary War. The father of our country found the roots of his action in a famous meal shared by Puritans and Native Americans in 1621.

This national holiday has come to express sentiments many wish were seen every day: Giving thanks. There's no component of race or religion. No one is excluded. Just sit down and give thanks for what you have — no matter how little or how much. 

Today we have much for which we can be thankful, no matter what we face from moronic politicians, the renewed threat of nuclear war, daily occurrences of mass shootings, a global pandemic and countless other trepidations.  

Of the many things for which I give thanks, it is the right to speak my mind I hold most dear. I need it just to clear out the cobwebs. Give me the right to speak freely about what I believe above all other liberties. In turn, though I may disagree with what you say I will defend to the death your right to say it. I am thankful for all who understand and exercise this right.

You may hate me. You may say you hate me. You can defend Donald Trump, tell me how much you love racism and misogyny, and preach about the virtues of a diet heavy with lard and fat, and proclaiming the manifest necessity of burning fossil fuels without filters for all eternity. I will accept your right to say what you believe — though there is no doubt I will disagree with every fiber of my being.

I will not accept speech that calls for violence against others or myself, nor will I accept the speech of someone screaming "fire" in a crowded theater when no fire exists. Otherwise, let it all out, baby.

That's the spirit behind free speech. 

It is enshrined in our Constitution as the First Amendment and people often forget what that actually means. I have had personal experience on this matter and I am thankful to understand exactly what the First Amendment means. The government, with a few limited exceptions I've already outlined, cannot interfere in your right to speak your mind. I went to jail four times to defend that right. 

But today there are many who are convinced that being bounced from privately-owned social media platforms is a violation of your First Amendment rights. Further, they believe that when a private individual or corporation, in effect, tells you to shut up, that is also a violation of your First Amendment rights. That is simply not true. And while some of those same people believe that Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter is a further erosion of the First Amendment — it is not. Elon is a cretin, a poltroon and has the fragile ego of Donald Trump. He spent far too much money for Twitter and his haircut is atrocious. But he's not violating anyone's First Amendment rights and those who are leaving Twitter because he took it over are merely foolish for retreating from the social media platform. Stay. Engage. Be a part of the conversation.

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Those who don't engage, to my mind, are showing us why the spirit behind the First Amendment is in deep trouble. We have abandoned the idea that we will listen to the words of others who think differently than us. In the movie "The American President," Michael Douglas puts it this way: "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours."

Many people today seem convinced that if a private individual or corporation tells you to shut up, that's a violation of your First Amendment rights. That's simply not true.

The movie is pure fiction and as it turns out today, so is the sentiment. In reality, both sides of the political spectrum want to erase or eradicate those who think differently. Those on the right, through the agents of chaos well known to us all, have taken to violence to suppress those who think differently. Hell, you can't even get that side of the aisle to admit the legitimate results of an election. 

Those on the other extreme merely want to cancel you. They just want you to cease, desist and disappear — or they're going to take their ball and go home, or to a safer social media space.

Both sides signal their virtues with hollow words about patriotism, God or love of country. None of them have the slightest idea what they're talking about. Again, a violation of your First Amendment rights only occurs when the government tries to suppress you. Breaking up peaceful protests, jailing reporters who won't divulge confidential sources, charging whistleblowers under a variety of statutes — those are violations of the First Amendment. Getting banned, or walking away from Twitter because you don't like the owner? Not even close.

So I also remain thankful that the Constitution still exists in written form — not just on a computer somewhere or bouncing around in cloud storage on the internet where it can be hacked or otherwise changed.

As frightening as it is to see the right take to the destruction of free speech, it is just as frightening to see those who call themselves "liberal" abandoning the ideals of free speech — especially since it is progressives who have been persecuted the most across the annals of history for daring to speak out against the blatherings of politicians, theocrats, deists, fascists and other narrow-minded trolls. 

Those who threaten violence in the name of liberalism, those who want to wade into the gutter of human interaction and slice throats in the name of enlightenment are no different to me than those who do so in the name of their favorite politician, fictional God or celebrity. None of these people embrace the ability to listen to others who think differently from themselves.

So I am thankful when I find others truly capable of free thought and speech, for nothing will ever change by suppressing the voices of those we deem to be ignorant or unworthy. Nothing is to be gained by slitting throats. The blade cuts both ways. The ignorance lies in us all — particularly when we fail to listen and learn from our fellow human beings.

I want to know what others really think. I am thankful when they tell me. I'd rather know you're a racist and the reasons behind your thoughts than having to guess.

Our advancement in technology has given all of us the ability to be heard, and while it is truly frightening to hear some of the bilge that parades itself as knowledge, we should make an effort to understand where the sewage began to flow. The only true way out of the quagmire of this technological feudalism into which we've plunged ourselves is by following the sewage to the source. It is the only way to make a change

So I want to know what others really think. I am thankful when they tell me. I'd rather know you're a racist and the reasons behind your thoughts than having to guess. Donald Trump has enabled and emboldened the darkest of human desires. His former attorney Michael Cohen has said that Trump often appeals to the darkness in men's souls. He's also given them the freedom to voice those dark desires, and while I oppose all of that, I cannot deny that I am thankful for knowing exactly where I stand with these people. I can't say I care too much about their opinions, but understanding their thoughts — if any actually exist — gives me information I can use in my own life. 

I cannot hope to change your mind if I don't know what's on your mind. If you throw your hands up in the air and say, "Well, you just can't change some people's minds," I want to know if you're speaking about others or yourself. I venture that in some cases it is both.

And so, I am thankful for the Republican Party and all of the enablers — from the Boeberts who offer thoughts and prayers for the victims of gun violence while cheering the proliferations of weaponry that make those deaths probable, to the mendacity of someone like Lindsey Graham who once said that if the GOP nominated Trump it would be the end of the party and it would be well deserved. He prays at the altar of Trump now, and we also know that no matter how much Republicans speak against him, in the end they'll fall in line behind him. Far from stifling them, I encourage them to speak. The rest of us need the laugh, and we can truly see them for the morons they are. Keeping them quiet doesn't work. Without seeing them in full daylight, some have gotten the idea there is some legitimacy to what those in MAGA World have to say. The open market of ideas removes the aura of legitimacy.

Maya Angelou said, "When someone shows you who they are, then believe them the first time." I'm thankful for her and I am reminded that without free speech, we might not know who some of the worst offenders against humanity are. Violence, chaos and fascism are things that grow in the dark. Stifling speech is never a recipe for a peaceful society.

As ugly and chaotic as it may be, it is always beneficial to hear what someone else thinks, no matter how much we may hate what they have to say. 

When we refuse to hear others, we run the risk of validating the emotions and beliefs that run counter to reality. That may lead to feelings of being bullied and shunned. A person can feel isolated and become angry. We all know the violence that can grow out of such scenarios.

So again I am thankful that at least we have the First Amendment. It is superior to how many of us act socially and one of the deepest roots of not only a solid democracy, but a mature and rational society.

My wish is that more people embrace the genuine ideals of free speech so we can all be more thankful, more peaceful and more mature.

Happy Thanksgiving.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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