Those who would quell dissent misunderstand free speech

Stephen Labash & Emily R. Greenberg

February 14, 1991|By Stephen Labash& Emily R. Greenberg

THOSE WHO would discourage or suppress debate have determined that this is a Good War. They do not want to hear anyone say, "No, it isn't," or even, "No, it may not be." If we're fighting a Good War, they reason, then no one should protest it.

These critics, among them our colleague Kenneth Lasson (Other Voices, Jan. 25), have misunderstood the purpose and importance of free speech. Whether one considers this war just nor not, the need to air our differences and challenge the wisdom of the "majority" remains constant. Freedom of speech exists to keep debate in constant motion. To suppress, or even discourage speech because we have decided that this is a just cause is tossing the Constitution aside along with the dissenters. A citizen who has a lock on The Truth, with which he would close the door to speech, is dangerous.

Let us consider some points in this debate:

There have been accusations that the protesters are guilty of "moral condescension," that they unjustly claim the moral high ground. But it was the president who chose to couch this war in terms of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, where shades of gray and history blend into a cloud of moral superiority. Indeed, a president must do so. Who would die for geopolitics or oil? But appeals to virtue and goodness are always good for encouraging sacrifice and unity as well as demonizing the enemy -- here or abroad.

The most popular argument is that protest undermines the morale of the troops and their families. An appeal to silence during a war implies that the troops and the nation should not hear other views because they might be persuaded by them. Thus, the war will only be supported if we indoctrinate the soldiers and ourselves.

That some Americans disagree with the war is indisputable. Whether dissenters are a "relatively small percentage" of the people is not the question, nor is how big or small that percentage is. It is a lie to pretend that the country is unified. Are we really saying that we should lie to soldiers to keep them where they are?

Supporters of the current policy claim that the media exaggerate the anti-war movement's strength. A content analysis of television would prove otherwise. How many demonstrations are covered, or press conferences with anti-war leaders, compared to the daily Pentagon briefings, hourly war updates, carefully selected videos of smart bombs that never miss and presidential sound bites?

And what are we to make of the peculiarly inverted logic that those who wish to send the troops into combat are truly concerned with the soldiers' lives, while those who oppose sending them are jeopardizing them? In war, logic is a casualty as well as truth.

Some have maintained that criticism of war was justifiable before the war began, but not after. If one believed before the war that it was unjust, immoral or bad policy, then how does it transform itself into a legitimate action with the loss of the first life? The best friends those soldiers have are the ones who want to bring them home.

Should protesters wait a "decent interval" before letting their views be known, as some have suggested? What would constitute such an interval? A day? A month? Six months? A year? How many deaths until we reach the magic number? One? One thousand? Ten thousand? Who's to say?

If public protest is only acceptable when the war is further along, then what should be done in the meantime? When individuals believe that a war is wrong, they must speak up immediately. There is no threshold of decency. War is serious business, and if you think it is wrong, how can you restrain yourself from saying so?

Moreover, we should be careful to remember that those who protest the war include people who worry -- legitimately -- that a gung-ho prosecution will result in a fumbled peace. The anxieties written on our faces are there as much for the future of this conflict as for its current status. Who can say, really, when this war will end? Who can say that the victors -- presumably the United States -- will act responsibly and justly to all parties after the shooting stops?

Some of those who oppose dissent have advocated suppression or censorship of anti-war voices. Others, with a nod to the Constitution and civil liberties, politely ask the protesters to censor themselves. The call for the dissenters to silence themselves is an attempt to gain conformity while avoiding the label of censor.

The cost of free speech is that sometimes the speech is jarring or unwelcome. It is precisely during times of crisis that this country's commitment to free speech becomes most important, while facing its greatest challenge.

Emily R. Greenberg is law librarian at the University of Baltimore. Stephen Labash is reference librarian at the UB Langsdale Library.

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