Posts Tagged ‘John Milton’

Caring for Words, VII: Free Speech?

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Among the actions the First Amendment to the US Constitution prevents Congress from doing is the making of any law “abridging the freedom of speech.” Nevertheless, the US Supreme Court recognizes constitutionally acceptable limits to this freedom, including incitement to “imminent lawless action,” possessing or producing child pornography, and violation of copyright. Free speech, of necessity, comes with restrictions in the interest of some other compelling good. This leaves to be decided, of course, what goods are sufficiently compelling, as well as where to draw a line between troubling, offensive, or discourteous speech and speech constituting a “clear and present danger.”

Not all protected speech content is prudent or helpful. There are words or opinions a considerate person is constitutionally entitled to express but chooses not to. Communities often observe prudential speech conventions, though these change over time as sensibilities and demographics evolve – sometimes by choice, sometimes by command, sometimes as the result of concerted social action.

For John Milton (yes, that John Milton), who addressed his defense of free speech and publication to the Presbyterian-controlled Parliament in 1644, near the height of the English Civil War, the line of tolerance excluded Catholics from any claim to protected speech. Free-speech advocates for whom Milton is a hero tend to skip over that detail now. Who and what is proscribed, whether by law or convention, depends on who has a voice in the discussion. Most non-black Americans stopped using the “N-word” as social relationships and sensibilities changed during and after the Civil Rights Era. It’s an embarrassingly tiny but welcome development in a long, unfinished struggle.

Names – and who gets to choose them – are particularly contentious. Alaska’s request to restore the Koyukon Athabascan name, Denali, to the mountain named in 1896 by a white gold prospector as Mount McKinley was delayed forty years (1975-2015). The primary opponent to the change was an Ohio congressman representing the district where William McKinley spent much of his life. To the Koyukon people, it has always been Denali. It took the US government a century to agree.