With dusk nearing, two strangers traveling in opposite directions along an empty stretch of road approach one another. Neither knows for certain whether the other means him harm, by depriving the other of his life through malicious injury, of his freedom through enslavement, or of his property through theft. As the distance between them dwindles, the tension grows, because the first to act against the other will clearly have an advantage. They hold their breaths as they come abreast, but then they pass each other without incident. They each glance over their shoulders in turn and continue on their ways home.
If we lived in such a land where men and women were bound by a necessity of fear and anxiety of one another, how could they ever build a community, let alone a nation? This question is central to understanding our nation’s character. Our Constitution assumes a political framework of Natural Law that the Founding Fathers described as “self evident“, derived from centuries of western tradition, philosophy, and political theory. Only within the context of this assumed framework of rights does the entire structure of prohibitions and limited powers in our Constitution have any coherent meaning.
Because everyone is entitled to the same unalienable rights of life, liberty, and property (Locke) that everyone also possess, a duty to not infringe upon the life, liberty, and property of others is necessarily imposed upon everyone. It is these implied duties from which we derive our system of laws and punishments, and without which our society would be quickly doomed to either the chaos of anarchy or injustice of tyranny. Rights, therefor, must stand or fall on the commitment of society to their defense.
While I’ve written, at least to some extent, about the application of rights to life and to property, Liberty is such a broad topic, encompassing so many facets of our lives that it is difficult to discuss in a short form. Recent events, however, beg for one facet of Liberty to be discussed: freedom of speech.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
As simply as I can describe it, Liberty is the right to act, think, or speak unconstrained by either society or government, so long as those actions, thoughts, or speech do not violate the duty to not infringe the rights of others. Together, our criminal justice system and tort laws reflect this understanding of Natural Law, both describing what constitutes infringement of individual rights as well as establishing appropriate punishments for transgressions of those same rights. Within the context of these laws, transgression takes only two forms: injuries and damages.
Taking this into account, when it comes to the rights of free speech, for example the right of NFL players to kneel during the national anthem, the duty to not only tolerate but to defend their freedom of speech exists unless the act of kneeling somehow either a) directly causes physical injury or death of an individual or b) directly causes financial or physical damage to an individual. Short of the NFL players literally assaulting an individual by kneeling on someone’s back, it is impossible for anyone to plead direct injury. And unless the NFL players kneeling caused actual damage to someone’s property, there’s no grounds for financial complaint. After all, spectators paid to see a football game, and the football game was played. If they chose to leave because they were so offended by seeing men peacefully and noncoercively kneel, then that is their own fault, not that of the players.
Now, to be fair, being offended by seeing men kneeling during the national anthem is perfectly reasonable and, at least on some level, patriotic, but it doesn’t begin to rise to the standard of injury or of damage, not even vaguely. No matter how angry you may understandably be at seeing someone refuse to stand for the national anthem, the difference between a patriot and a passive citizen is that a patriot defends the right of dissent, regardless of our personal feelings on the matter. Even if why the NFL players and many others kneeled during the anthem and in support of those kneeling were completely fictitious (it sadly really isn’t), their right to do so is demonstrably inarguable.
“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
American patriots have given their lives so that we may speak a word of dissent without fearing for our lives, liberties, and property. If you don’t agree, feel free to turn off the NFL, refund your tickets, and disassociate as much as you like, but, as you attempt to bring retribution upon the heads of others for merely doing something you found objectionable, don’t do so while claiming to be a patriot, because there is nothing patriotic about trying to punish other people for peaceful, noncoercive speech.
There is another word for that: tyranny.
And to you I say, “Sic semper evello mortem tyrannis!”
Liberty is For The Win!