Is speech truly free?

Published May 12, 2022

By Lib Campbell

The little girl on the playground was new in town. She was climbing on the monkey bars in the school playground. She and her family had just come to town, moving from Delaware for her dad to work at a new DuPont Plant in a nearby town. Her accent was being teased… taunting words were coming from the ground beneath her. I heard her say something to the heckling crowd below,“sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I remember thinking she was brave in the face of her antagonists. Through the years, however, I have come to know that words can hurt. Even more than stones. Words can shame, embarrass, belittle, betray, lie. It is being reported from a lot of various sources, that bullying words can even drive people to self-harm and suicide.
Were the taunters on the playground simply exercising free speech, or was there intent to harm a little girl on the playground simply trying to live her little girl life?
I have never been one to shy away from opinion. I had a student teacher who, when I was in the eleventh grade, told me I was, “the most opinionated person she ever met.” I would wager that my husband of almost 57 years might agree with her. There is more political discourse that has happened around our dinner table, brushing our teeth at the sink, and sitting in the sun on our back deck’ than likely has happened in most homes anywhere around. We disagree frequently, but we listen to each other. And we learn from each other.
Tom’s Mother often said about Tom’s dad, “He was frequently wrong, but he was never in doubt.” Listening to one another is what shapes ideas, but it is hard to listen when the rants and ravings of many on the right and the left think, honestly, that they have nothing to learn. The arrogance of self-righteousness is what taints the discussion about free speech. People dig in, torpedo one another. Kindness be damned. And before long civility and anything that is edifying for a greater good is lost.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In today’s atmosphere of grievance, division, post-truth, big lie life, we already see the rights of a free press under attack. So is free speech. But I would say, since the Constitution does not explicitly state it, that any speech that is hate filled, bullying, filled with untruth and lies, any speech that is harmful to the most marginalized among us, any speech that goes beyond opinion to tear down rather than to build up, is not real free speech. It is hateful rhetoric intended to hurt, demonize, demoralize, and tear down people, systems, and principles, and values, and ultimately our Democracy.
I have decided that it is a good time to be old. I have lived through a lot of history that, even with all the really awful, terrible stuff, always seemed to be on a path to something better for all God’s children and for all creation. We are becoming a people who live an amnesia of civic values, Biblical virtues, civic principles and common sense over what is right and what is wrong. My own naivete is tested now. Can we moderate our own free speech that is does good in the world, that it does no harm? Is what I say building up, or tearing down? These are the questions of the Rotary Club: “Is my speech fair and beneficial to all concerned? Will what I say build good will and better friendships?  Is what I say the truth?” And if all is torn down, will this be a world anybody wants to live in?

Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, retreat leader and host of