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Why I Believe in Freedom of Speech and Action

In my policy preferences, I have a strong bias toward freedom of speech and action within constraints of responsibility. For instance, a person who falsely accuses another of a crime and sends an innocent person to prison should be liable for the harm done. And the freedom to “Do as thou wilt” extends only so far as the Wiccan Rede’s condition “If it harm none.” You don’t, and shouldn’t, have the freedom to disembowel my nephew.

I could describe my policy bias in fuller, more ornate terms, but that’s a pretty good encapsulation. The next question I’ve been asking myself is “Why? Why do I subscribe to this bias, and do so strongly?”

A person reading my posts here at Irregular Times might be able to channel an answer for me: “Because those freedoms are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which is the Supreme Law of the United States.” Every week you can find me writing on this here website about the first amendment or the fourth amendment or the fourteenth amendment or article II or occasionally the second amendment, so that would be a pretty good guess on your part.

Up to a point it’s a fair characterization of my position. This country is threatened by leaders from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney through Barack Obama and Eric Holder who are inclined to think of the Constitution as a suggestion. Each of these men is inclined to replace constitutional mandates with his personal judgment about what would be appropriate. This is dangerous because when you replace the rule of law with rule by men the people who are ruled by those men are vulnerable to the arbitrary exercise of authority. Like subjects of a King, they are reduced to the hope that their ruler will be nice to them.

There’s a need for people to be protected against the whims of the powerful, and a robust constitutional system of government can accomplish that. But I do not believe that the Constitution should simply be obeyed because it is the Constitution. That would be substituting faith in law for faith in individual politicians, and obediance based on faith alone seems destined to lead to disappointment.

A system of government has to be worthy of my support to get my support. I can imagine circumstances in which I would actively oppose a constitution. If a constitution encouraged the use of government institutions to cram religious ideology down citizens’ throats, I would oppose it. If a constitution enshrined discrimination, I would oppose it. If a constitution prohibited freedom of expression or permitted warrantless search and seizure, I would march against it in the street. I support the constitution not simply because it is the foundation of law in this country, but because it is a good foundation of law.

What makes this particular system good? I think the American constitution is a good model because it is focused on protecting individual people from the power of institutions inside the government (power hungry presidents) and outside the government (control freak priests). It’s not a perfect constitution (the power of economic institutions aganst individuals is not sufficiently checked, in my opinion), but it’s better than the other systems I’m aware of (speech-code Europe, this means you) at protecting the prerogatives of people. The most significant failings of the American political system stem from politicians’ attempts to wiggle out of constitutional mandates.

For me protecting the prerogatives of people (if they harm none) is what I feel to be important because compared to human institutions we human people are so small, so fragile and so ephemeral. We are doomed to die, and we can be pushed around so easily. A system of government that lets us live our lives as we see fit, so long as we don’t harm others, seems best to me.

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