Understanding Freedom of Speech in the United States of America

What the 1st Amendment to the Constitution Does & Does Not Protect

I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom of speech, and the first amendment in general, lately.  Between the uproar over the Confederate Battle Flag, an unprecedented user and moderator revolt at Reddit after the decision to shut down certain groups (the CEO, whom many blame for the ugly affair, wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post), a very vocal minority of Americans upset about the Supreme Court granting equality to gay Americans in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, and world-class comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock publicly airing their concern about the sanitation of humor for fear of offending people, talk shows, newspapers, radio programs, books, and blogs have all been discussing the limits of personal expression to which an American is entitled under our constitution.


First, let me say that, despite all of our flaws, there are certain things that I believe the United States of America does better than other countries; things that are in the very cultural fabric of who we are as a people resulting from ideals that we consider sacred.  One of them is free speech.  (I’m not even talking about the obvious low-hanging fruit to which we can be compared, such as Russia.  It’s sobering to reflect upon the fact that if I were living in Moscow, this blog would have to register with the state media regulator due to the site attracting more than 3,000 readers a day.  With copyrights held by a limited liability company, merely mentioning that I celebrated my 14th anniversary recently would require an adult filter, marked for mature audiences only; that failure to do so could subject a firm holding the publishing rights to a fine of 1,000,000 Rubles ($17,556 USD) and force it to shut down for 90 days under violation of the propaganda laws.  That, indeed, were I to even travel to Russia, the fact this blog is publicly accessible could get me arrested and detained for 15 days, fined 5,000 Rubles and deported.)  In America, you can say practically anything without fear of being dragged away in the middle of the night, locked in a jail cell for offending the wrong person or holding a politically incorrect position.

Alexander von Humboldt 1843 by Joseph StielerThis philosophy is encapsulated perfectly by an event that happened shortly after the birth of the nation.  Baron Alexander von Humboldt visited his friend, Thomas Jefferson, during one of the Prussian’s trips North America.  On a certain morning, the Baron stopped by the Cabinet to say hello.  As Humboldt, “sat by the table, among the newspapers that were scattered about, he perceived one that was always filled with the most virulent abuse of Mr. Jefferson, calumnies the most offensive, personal as well as political. “Why are these libels allowed?” asked the Baron taking up the paper, ‘why is not this libelous journal suppressed, or its Editor at least, fined and imprisoned?’  Mr. Jefferson smiled, saying, ‘Put that paper in your pocket Baron, and should you hear the reality of our liberty, the freedom of our press, questioned, show this paper, and tell where you found it.'” [Source]

In the centuries since that occurrence, the Supreme Court has gone so far as to uphold inflammatory speech of the most vile sort provided it does not meet two conditions: 1.) the advocacy is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and 2.) the advocacy is also “likely to incite or produce such action.” [[Source]; also see majority opinion in 1969 case Bradenburg v. Ohio upholding right of Ku Klux Klan leader to denigrate racial and religious minorities.]

The Supreme Court protects free speech to such a degree that the rest of the world, and even many Americans, consider it ridiculous.  In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, it unanimously declared that Congress and the President had no authority to restrict Internet pornography as it was a form of personal expression protected by the Constitution.  In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, it struck down bans on virtual (computer generated) child pornography, arguing no one was harmed and it was personal expression.  In Citizens United v. FEC, it struck down bans on corporations spending money to influence elections, stating that doing so is a form of speech under the theory the constitution protects associations of individuals; that companies are merely collections of citizens working together, entitled to all of the rights of those citizens.  In Snyder v. Phelps, it upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to publicly demonstrate the funeral of an Iraqi war veteran, holding signs indicating God had delighted in his death at enemy hands, much to the distress of the soldier’s father, who couldn’t grieve in peace.  He had to put his son in the ground while these monsters cheered and celebrated mere hundreds of feet from the casket.  In Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of speech meant the freedom to desecrate or burn an American flag as an act of political protest.

Even our libel and slander laws are more liberal than those in Europe.  In the United States, if you defame someone, truth is an affirmative defense even if your actions lead to their total financial ruin and destruction.  In one case, Johnson v. Johnson, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island reversed a $20,000 punitive damage award against an ex-husband who called his wife a “whore” in a public fight at a restaurant, ruining her reputation in the community, because it agreed with the trial court judge who built a detailed timeline to show that the evidence indicated she was, in fact, a whore.

The founding fathers didn’t whine when exercising their freedom of speech made them unpopular. They dealt with the consequences. During the Presidential election of 1800 when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off for the highest executive position in the land, Jefferson referred to Adams as “a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character with neither the force and fitness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman” to which Adams replied that Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father”.  Talk like that, and you’re not going to be welcome at a lot of folk’s tables.That is the vision of free speech that makes America fundamentally different from our allies, most of whom possess have what constitutional scholars have dubbed “free speech lite”, which makes the promulgation of certain ideas deemed “dangerous”, “unpopular”, or “demeaning” a crime.  Things that would be quite illegal to say, and could get you thrown in jail in places such as Ireland or Brazil are beyond the reach of government in the United States.  Something like the Socialists in France banning Dieudonné from public performance due to anti-semitism simply could not happen here.  No matter how abhorrent the speech, the constitution places it beyond the reach of the Executive and Legislative branches, leaving it in the realm of the public sphere for citizens to deal with among themselves, as they see fit.  Noble as they may sound, were Congress to attempt to pass laws similar to those found in France – laws that forbid inciting racial and religious hatred – they hardly would be off the printing press before the Supreme Court cracked them in two, rendering them powerless under the gavel of judicial review.

To provide a contrast, the Criminal Code of Canada imposes a maximum prison term of two to fourteen years for inciting hatred against an identifiable group, which includes “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation”.  The Canadian Supreme Court recently upheld these hate speech laws in a unanimous decision known as Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. Whatcott.  A Christian preacher was convicted and fined for saying that homosexuality was an abomination; that the Bible called it a sin.  The fact these were his religious beliefs didn’t matter because they were so absurd and harmful to families; citizens; their children.

No matter how misguided Americans might feel a person like that is, the mere notion the government could imprison him for speech is likely to send ice water through the veins.  It’s against our very core convictions.  Born, as we were, from the European Enlightenment, we tend to believe the words Beatrice Evelyn Hall, under the nom de guerre S.G. Tallentyre, wrote about Voltaire’s attitude regarding fellow French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.  Instead, we deal with conflicts in constitutional rights through resolution mechanisms such as public accommodation laws; like traffic lights, they prioritize whomever is on the buying side of the table and deny business owners the right to turn away customers who belong to protected classes or have protected status.  (For instance, you can spend all day posting hate speeches against Asian Americans on the Internet, but if you own a bowling alley, you have to serve them, and offer the same terms, as if they were any other customer were they to come into your business and try to book a lane, rent shoes, and use your equipment.)

Freedom of Speech Does Not Protect You from Personal, Political, Economic, Social, Romantic, or Societal Backlash (or Let’s Talk About Flags)

Somehow, over the past twenty years a lot of Americans have come to be under the mistaken impression that the first amendment allows them to say whatever they want without consequence; that their constitutional “right to have an opinion” means a right not to have their feelings hurt or be fired, boycotted, called out, attacked, and generally made miserable for that opinion.  I’m not sure whether this is a result of too many kumbaya singing circles at summer camp, one too many “safe space” workshops on college campuses by social justice warriors, or whether a lot of people failed high school civics, but nothing could be further from the truth.  That is not now, nor has it ever been, how the United States of America works.  Free speech does not entitle you to be free from the consequences of your speech.  It only provides a guarantee that, absent what the courts have called a “compelling governmental interest”, the government cannot restrict your ability to say it nor imprison you for it, no matter how unpopular, hateful, idiotic, or nonsensical it is.

That’s it.  That is the extent of your right; a right that is far more expansive than almost all other nations on Earth.  You can say whatever you want but everybody else – with very few exceptions, which are important nonetheless – can respond, in kind, even if their response is irrational, misguided, or ill-informed.


An illustration: You can own a Confederate Flag (First national, second national, third national, battle, naval jacks and ensigns, or otherwise).  You can display it on your car.  You can fly it in front of your house. You can tattoo it on your arm.  You can write books about how much you love it.  You can set up your own Internet server and build a forum with others who love it.  You can be motivated by any number of reasons – perhaps you’re black and, to you, it represents a regional heritage far divorced from its original roots; perhaps you’re a white supremacist and see it as a rallying symbol for those who believe in preserving the “white race”.  The reason is inconsequential to your first amendment right to do these things as an American.  The government cannot arrest you for displaying the flag.  The government cannot imprison you for speaking out in its defense.

Freedom of Speech Confederate Flag

On the other hand, your freedom of speech does not extend to anyone else.  You do not have a right to tell other Americans how they must react to your speech. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  Signaling theory 101 should tell you you’re going to have a bad time if you go around with it slapped on the back of your tailgate because a majority of the country sees it as a symbol of oppression, slavery, and Jim Crow; the traitorous banner of a group of men so dedicated to keeping black men, women, and children as slaves that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens famously announced in the Cornerstone Speech, “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Display it and you might find your grown children no longer return your phone calls.  Let it fly above your porch and you might discover that the other parents have forbidden their kids from speaking to your grandchildren at school, making them social outcasts to put pressure on you.  Put it by the front door of your retail shop and you might wake up to a failing enterprise as customers abandon you in protest.  Wear it as a t-shirt and you might even find yourself fired from your job.  Your first amendment rights do practically nothing to stop these things from happening even if, as is oft to happen, the reactions go past the absurd and into total inanity.  (Witness Warner Brothers declaring that the one of the most iconic cars in television history, the General Lee from Dukes of Hazard – named after the Confederate military leader – would be digitally altered so the flag no longer appears on the roof’s paint job.  Or, likewise, Amazon banning non-fiction history books about the confederate flag because the cover contained … a confederate flag.  That is a whole new level of cognitive impairment but both Warner Brothers and Amazon are perfectly within their rights to do it despite the troubling implications for re-writing history, denying what was a core part of American culture as it is whitewashed out of existence.)

Losing Your Job When You Exercise Your Right to Free Speech in America

Another real-world example of the American model of free speech at work, perhaps the most talked about situation on far-right forums and media sites: Brendan Eich, the creator of javascript and co-founder of Mozilla.  In 2008, Eich made a financial donation of $1,000 in support of California Proposition 8, which sought to take away marriage rights from gay citizens (marriage equality was legal in California at the time and gay couples had, and were, getting married) by adding to the state constitution, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”  The proposition was successfully passed by a 52.27% to 47.76% margin, with 2.48% votes invalidated.

He broke no laws.

His side won on election day.

The government took no action against him.

Legally speaking, Brendan Eich did nothing wrong.  He acted, at all times, within the law and exercised his personal freedoms as an American.  Yet, to many, his direct financial support was deeply immoral, and so profoundly evil, they no longer wanted to do business with him on the customer side of the transaction.  Donors indicated they would cut off gifts to Mozilla, not wanting to put cash in the pocket of a man who would deny a dying person the dignity of having their spouse hold their hand in the hospital as they took their last breaths.  Application developers called for boycotts, not wanting to suffer the mere association of ties to a person who would deny children the protection of having both parents on their birth certificate so they could make decisions in an emergency.  Employees threatened to resign, unable to remain civil towards someone who actively supported a campaign that had the effect of causing widows to be denied Social Security benefits for no reason other than to express his disapproval of the person she loved.  In certain circles, using Firefox as a browser was seen as a personal attack, opening the end user up to significant inter-personal conflict with those he or she loved in close proximity, threatening market share as people were more likely to switch to Chrome than hurt a friend or family member.

Brendan Eich Free Speech Religious LibertyThese combined pressures from millions of other Americans using their own constitutional freedoms of speech and association caused his career to be ruined, his reputation destroyed, and his legacy forever tarnished.  This brilliant man stepped down in an attempt to save the business he had helped create and became a social exile, viewed no differently by a large percentage of society as if he had been a staunch supporter of segregation in the South.  The thinking went that, far from a benign difference in opinion, Eich contributed to a movement keeping war veterans from being buried by their husbands or wives in military cemeteries and causing kids to put guns against their temple, blowing their brains out in desperation; beyond the realm of reasonable conversation and having no place in civilized company.

Is it fair?  Perhaps not.  Several of us have had conversations over the past few years about the unfortunate real-time death spirals that can be set off due to the always-on inter-connectivity of the digital age, when things can go viral quickly.  It can lead to a lot of perceived injustice.  In olden days, many bad decisions were avoided when you had to wait an entire weekend to see someone or drive over to their house before yelling at them, giving you time to calm down.  (There’s a case study involving Washington, D.C. I need to write along these lines, examining how an honest misunderstanding a few decades ago cost one city manager his job.)

Is it understandable?  Yes.  It goes back to what Charlie Munger talks about – the super power of incentive.  I wouldn’t work for someone like Eich, just as I wouldn’t work for someone who supported interracial marriage bans or stripping women’s right to vote; a decision that is mine and mine alone to make as a citizen. If a family member of mine were doing business with him, it’s going to be hard not to take it personally to the point that Thanksgiving is going to be uncomfortable, if I bother visiting at all; again, a decision that is mine and mine alone to make.  The fact this causes others pressure isn’t really my concern or problem any more than I’d worry about their feelings if I were married to a Hispanic woman and they were casually referring to her as a “wetback”.  They are free to say it under their first amendment right; again, the government can’t arrest them for it.  However, I’m free to cut them out of my life, refuse to patronize their business as a customer, and stop making donation to their non-profit group.  (What sane, self-respecting person would behave differently?  Would you allow your spouse, your child, your friend, your sibling, or your coworker to be treated as a second-class citizen due to some immutable trait?  Not if you had any decency or morals.  You’d stand up for them and refuse to associate with the person.  This idea you should politely nod and say, “Well, we all have a difference of opinion” is both naive – does that sound like human nature to you? – and insulting; a modern day, scaled version of the Atlanta Compromise.)

Is it American?  Absolutely.  In fact, when a special interest group challenged public disclosure laws in a Washington State referendum that required voter’s names and addresses to be publicly available, arguing it would cause citizens to fear taking part in the political process – they might lose their job, they might be ostracized from their community, they might be seen as bigots – conservative icon Antonin Scalia excoriated them, all but calling them cowards; saying that being American required a degree of civic courage, especially if legislating.  In his Doe v. Reed concurrence [PDF], Scalia provided a brilliant history lesson on early American political practices, the Constitution, and how our system was modeled after Switzerland; how even voting was public until 1888 when the States “began to adopt the Australian secret ballot” and the court has never said there is a first amendment right to anonymity (in fact, we could easily go to a system where each citizen was required to record his or her vote in the newspaper for all friends and family to see, suffering the social ramifications as he or she may).  The justification is simple: If someone is going to attempt to strip away your right to own a gun, or raise your taxes; pass restrictions on how many pets you can have or tell you that you can’t be at your spouse’s bedside as he or she is dying, you have a right to know.  You can try to change their minds, put pressure on them, take out advertisements or billboards decrying how terrible they are.

Part of the reason the Eich case resonates strongly with older Americans (the demographic in which an overwhelming percentage of the opposition is concentrated) is a combination of the so-called deprival super reaction mental model and the echo chamber mental model; they feel as if something they’ve always held as a given is being taken from them and truly had no idea how extreme their views are outside of a handful of states and their own age group.  If you’re 70 years old living in Alabama, for example, virtually everyone you know, by an 8-to-1 or 9-to-1 margin opposes equal rights.  Whereas, in the rest of the country, those born after 1980, including Alabama’s abysmally low numbers dragging down the average, support equality by a 7-to-1 or 8-to-1 margin.  Eich worked in an industry dominated by young people, in a coastal city.  He should have had the self-awareness to know how his actions would be perceived.

It can be a real wake-up call when people who assume their speech is in the majority realize that isn’t the case; that others take umbrage with their speech and react in kind.  Look at the contract engineer for Ford Motor Company who was recently fired for saying he opposed the automaker’s attempt at creating a more inclusive workspace.  The Detroit Free Press reports he is suing them now, saying his rights were violated.  He truly doesn’t understand his speech is akin to saying, “Why are you hiring all these Negroes?  This place should be for whites.” or that his speech has consequences.

I doubt he’ll find a receptive audience given that the agency hearing his case, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, shocked a lot of people a few days ago by ruling Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers sexual orientation discrimination in employment because the discrimination is based upon the sex (a protected class) of the person experiencing the discrimination.  The 17-page decision [PDF] effectively creates a stop-gap Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in all 50 states and opens businesses up to significant financial penalties in the event they refuse to hire or promote workers based upon their romantic lives.  It is almost as big a deal as the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges declaring marriage equality a fundamental right.

Nevertheless, there are those who freak out at the idea freedom of speech comes with consequences; that they aren’t entitled to anyone’s respect or politeness.  I’ve found no better summation of the sentiment than an older woman who appeared in the pages of Houston’s largest newspaper in recent weeks, the Houston Chronicle.  The story begins:

Overnight, Betty became a bigot – or, at least, that’s how the 74-year-old Brazoria County grandmother fears people will perceive her for opposing gay marriage in a country that has just legalized it nationwide.

As a devout Catholic married for 53 years, it seemed that one day, a family was a mom, dad and kids. The next, it was something radically different. Five judges decided to play God and “destroyed the definition of marriage,” she says.

Suddenly, gays, liberals and young people were celebrating in the streets and everything from the White House to Niagara Falls was set aglow in hues of rainbow.

“It’s like ‘what’s going on here?’ You thought you were on solid ground and you’re not,” Betty told me in a phone interview Thursday. “Everything we believed in is changing.”


She has First Amendment rights, but if she expresses her opinions in public, “now I will be the one discriminated against! – being called a bigot!” she wrote.


She says she can already see division in her own family and feel pressure from liberal and younger relatives to change her ideals.


Betty says she had a gay relative who was welcome in her home but knew her views before he died of AIDS in the 1980s. She had gay coworkers who kept that part of their lives private.

“Now everything’s out in the open and it’s ‘accept us or else.’ Not everybody’s ready for that,” she said.

Betty could learn a thing or two from Justice Scalia.  She can still have her opinion, even openly proclaim it, but she’s so used to getting away with her hatefulness she doesn’t know how to handle the personal accountability.  (One commentator summed it up by saying Betty didn’t wake up a bigot, Betty was always a bigot, nobody said anything to her about it until now).

How much tolerance should Betty be given?  That’s open for debate.  In practice, it’s unlikely she’ll receive any.  Cynically, but accurately, I suppose, many demographers point out that her feelings aren’t worth worrying about for the same reason folks didn’t worry about those who opposed interracial marriage: They’ll almost all be dead within the next ten or twenty years.  To avoid sounding so cold, the kinder term “generational turnover” is employed as a sort of politically non-confrontational way of putting it but the meaning is the same.

One of the Things I Respect About Justice Scalia Is His Willingness to Say Outright What He Believes, Why He Believes It, and Withstand Criticism For It

Despite some significant disagreements with him about the nature of the constitution, and the amount of power the masses should have over the country – I think his deference to the legislature at the cost of individual freedoms is incompatible with many of the safety checks the founders put in place; that James Madison, with whom I tend to align on a lot of issues, would have found his vision for the United States abhorrent – I have a great deal of respect for Justice Scalia’s willingness to state clearly what he believes, why he believes it, and withstand all of the criticism and consequences of those beliefs.

Antonin ScaliaSince we talked about Brendan Eich, let’s go with that.  Take, for example, Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, written back in 2003.  He went far and beyond anything Eich said.  He outright states that he believes the government is entirely within its rights, and behaving perfectly reasonable, when and if it decides not just to refuse to recognize but to criminalize gay relationships even if doing so “does deny equal protection to ‘homosexuals as a class,’” based on nothing more than “the enforcement of traditional notions of sexual morality”; that the fact discrimination against gays had a long tradition in and of itself provides sufficient justification, under his vision of the constitution, for throwing Aaron and me in prison with serial killers, rapists, and thieves, while taking the money and property we earned through seizure with no other explanation necessary than a desire to express disapproval of who we are.

It’s a monstrous position, sure, but it’s at least intellectually consistent and he’s willing to suffer the consequences of professing it so plainly.  I respect that he’s not a coward.  I admire it; find it refreshing even.  To Scalia, being gay is a behavior, not a characteristic.  It’s idiotic – you’re still gay whether or not you sleep with a woman, just as a straight guy would still be straight even if he got drunk one night and fooled around with a guy – but he tries to live these values, especially since he needs to believe them.  This is a man who shipped his own son, Paul, off to a life of celibacy to run religious sexual orientation conversion camps; a son who has spent his career talking about how individuals must fight against their “temptations”, even if it means being alone and missing out on many of the things that make life worth living; how homosexuality doesn’t exist if you choose not to act on those feelings (I’m pretty sure if you dumped a straight guy on a desert island, he’d still be straight despite his complete inability to act on his attractions due to a lack of other people being around him).  If Scalia were to actually accept the evidence that now confirms what gay people have been saying forever – that it’s hardwired into the brain, can be identified with scientific accuracy looking at everything from chemical tests to neurology scans, has no hope of being permanently changed, and is nothing more than a harmless, population-level evolutionary adaptation that doesn’t even influence fertility probabilities to any significant degree thanks to the availability of surrogacy in recent years – he’d have to accept the fact he robbed his child of a life; a child every bit as forceful as the father he’s trying to make proud, now brainwashed into propagating the same harmful conversion therapy that is akin to the types recently declared consumer fraud in the New Jersey court system and outright banned at the insistence of the medical profession in other states given the abject failure rate; conversion therapy that has left a wake of dead bodies, emotional destruction, drug addiction, and broken families behind it.

There is a boldness in Scalia’s courage of conviction that should inspire every American – liberal, conservative, or independent – to own the consequences of his or her opinions.  If the trade-off of making them known or supporting them is worth it, great.  If not, great.  You don’t get to whine about the fact other people are upset with you.

Freedom of Speech in America is Messy, Confrontational, and Sometimes Brutal But I’d Argue It’s One of Our Crowning National Achievements

In my own life, I generally prefer civility and kindness to acerbity.  The latter isn’t going to change anyone’s mind because they can get so overwhelmed with their dislike for you, they can’t think about your argument.  Nevertheless, I would not trade civility for freedom and responsibility.  Like the second amendment protecting the right to bear arms, the power to exercise freedom of speech requires a certain wisdom.  Not used prudently, it can destroy your life and lives of those you love.

You can say whatever you want.  You will also pay the price for saying it.  That is how America works.  That is how America has always worked.  And, if we’re blessed, that is how America will continue to work for as long as she endures.

  • Two points.

    On the main point of your article, what do you think about the fact that so much speech (and even monetary support) now can be anonymous? (Both now and as was the case before digital technologies.) For example, being able to post anonymously (not totally anonymously, but anonymously enough) really changes the way I think about what I write.

    Secondly (this is the result of several mental tangents in my mind after I read this article), do you think it will be a huge black mark historically on Buffett and Munger that they are always publicly supportive and never critical of the Chinese government (they say “China” and not the “Chinese government” but it’s clear from context that’s what they mean)? The Chinese government just dragged countless human rights lawyers away in the middle of the night and routinely commits acts that are as despicable as that, but Buffett and Munger always only say they are a “big fan” of China and so on.

    • Anonymity definitely changes the level of candor, and sometimes, empathy, a person is likely to display. My general rule is to try and avoid writing anything I wouldn’t say to someone’s face or, in recent years, to borrow from an old adage that people like Warren Buffett have brought back, be willing to see on the front page of a newspaper, reproduced verbatim with surrounding context kept intact. There are opinions I’ve drawn that I’d be willing to share anonymously that I wouldn’t write under my name unless I took the time to sit down and work through a persuasive essay, laying out a systematic framework the reason for my belief; some of which, absent a full and compelling explanation, could very well cause me to lose friends but that I’m convinced the data is on my side (otherwise I wouldn’t hold the opinion in the first place); that, if they could prove me wrong, I’d change my mind in a heartbeat.

      As for your second question: If you forced me to guess, I’d say no. Most people, when looking at Buffett and Munger’s comments in context, are likely to restrict their “big fan” comments to the economic potential of a nation that contains almost 20% of the entire world’s population. Given their other acts – Buffett was one of the few white men on Omaha to give up his country club membership decades ago when it still wouldn’t admit Jews as members, along with being one of the first business leaders in America to state that it was irrational, and wrong, for companies to discriminate against employee promotion based on sexual orientation – the overall weight of their legacy makes it hard to believe they think such things are okay, but rather see them, as I’d argue most Western leaders do, as growing pains on the way to a liberal democracy.

      There’s little chance that, ultimately, China can maintain an autocratic, communistic government structure when the population is living as well as South Korea or Canada. It just can’t work. When people stop worrying about how they’re going to eat and have large amounts of free time, they begin demanding self-expression; artistically, in speech, romantically, in career choices. (There’s an interesting sociological framework I read about from back during my study of modern feminism, if you remember my tangent going through a reading the textbooks being used in colleges today for departments such as gender studies, just to see what is being pumped into the minds of 18 to 22 year olds who are interested in this sort of thing. It came from a former feminist-now-mens-rights activist who, in other works, argues that there are two levels of societal development. In Level I societies, survival and reproduction are paramount. Women are treated as property. Men are treated as disposable (e.g,. the Southern women hissing and shunning men who refused to fight in the Civil War, boys being prostituted as soldiers through compulsory drafts to fight non-defensive wars, expected to fight to the death to defend a woman – any woman – due to the fact she was biologically more valuable to the tribe than he was), gays were executed, imprisoned, or outcast, marriages were about food, shelter, and resource accumulation with far higher rates of alcoholism and misery, free speech is restricted for what is seen as the greater good (e.g., “Don’t offend the gods or they’ll send a disaster to destroy our crops”). You may hate your life but you had responsibilities you had to accept. Morality was about fulfilling those responsibilities, even if you were unfilled personally. In Level II societies, all of those things get swept away. Women and men become equals, able to follow their own self-fulfillment. Other family arrangements are permitted. People can choose careers like music composition or video game development. Behaviors that are considered human rights in Level II societies could, if left unchecked, lead to death in Level I societies, causing the Level I societies to view the Level II societies as decadent, sinful, wasteful, hedonistic, or irresponsible, with the Level II societies viewing the Level I societies as backward, misguided, superstitious, and evil. Compare modern day Russia with Sweden and you get the picture.)

      China is making that jump right now. It’s going to be messy – remember, it wasn’t that long ago the United States had children working in coal mines at nine years old – but ultimately, I have faith they’re going to get there. It’s possible to support a country, and root for them to get better so their people experience higher standards of living, while disagreeing with their human rights abuses. The ability to predict the timing and course of that journey could be extremely lucrative. (I know, for example, that you’ve expressed some serious concern that western investors are underestimating the resolve of the Chinese authorities in shutting down certain gambling practices in Macau; a question that certainly has relevance to the intrinsic valuation of some major entertainment securities.)

      But generally … no. I don’t think they’ll be seen any differently than the British who funded America’s expansion when we were, relatively, far less civilized. In the end, a mental model that is rarely seen but extraordinarily powerful (you’re going to see it in the marriage equality cases, too) called “societal amnesia” will take hold. Books will be re-written, atrocities removed from history, the parties involved die off … all that will be left is a richer, better society and that’s all anyone will care about in the end. At least, that’s my bet.

      • Very interesting reply – thanks.

        I wouldn’t mind having all I write under this name associated with my real name…just not right now. I expect some day I will go public. Interestingly, you have not only your name but your picture on this site, yet you write things far more personal than I’d dare. All the more reason to be independent (not only financially but in the totality of the way one engages with society)!

        I have been thinking more about what is really going to happen to Berkshire and the Buffett legacy a few decades from now. Obviously, I think the positive achievements will far outweigh any failings, but it is interesting to speculate about how many things seen as admirable or neutral today will be seen as abhorrent decades later. There’s been a lot of chatter recently about how Coca Cola or See’s Candies in the future could be seen in the same ethical light as cigarette companies are seen now. And then there’s the Clayton Homes non-issue. (Of course, exemplars and thus big targets like Berkshire Hathaway, Disney and Apple will always be beleaguered by accusations in ways that more run-of-the-mill companies aren’t.) And in that light, it’s interesting to think about when there is social amnesia and when there isn’t. People still talk about how Henry Ford was anti-Semitic, for example. (Of course as a student of history I know better than to judge past actions or thinking by the standards of other times and places, but speculating how *other* people might do this judging is another matter entirely!)

        • I find the conversation around sugar interesting as you allude to, a lot of people think that the obesity, diabetes, and other detrimental health effects of over-consumption of processed, sugary snacks will one day lead people to have negative connotations with sugar, like with tobacco now.

          I’m of the opinion that sugar will always be. It is just so ingrained in our biology to crave it that, outside of the extreme ends of the bell curve where people over-consume things like cola, chocolate bars, candy, and other processed sugary snacks, I just can’t see it getting stigmatized like tobacco.

          I feel like sugar is as much of what it means to be human as is the need for water. I’m up for changing my mind, but the real world evidence I see all around suggests sugar is not going anywhere or getting stigmatized… ever.

          (would be interested in your thoughts/wow I just realized how off tangent this comment is from freedom of speech)

        • A lot of it goes back to the ideas of “Antifragile,” doesn’t it? Sugar and bread have been with us so long (sugar long, I suppose) – does that mean they are more likely to thus survive the NEXT few hundred years because of this evidence?

          I don’t know.

        • Hmmmm… I’ll stew on this.

          I wonder what Joshua thinks; but I think by his affinity for Hershey’s, Nestle, Coca-Cola, etc, I think we know where he might be leaning.

  • Engineer7006

    The most recent CNN poll showed that a majority of the country does not consider the Confederate flag to be a symbol of hate at 57%. A large majority of African Americans do think it is a symbol of hate, while 66% of whites do not.


    It was actually interesting to see CNN push the hatred narrative when their own data was in conflict with that.

    • I think there are several things happening. Digging into the actual findings [PDF] rather than the summary write-up, when the symbol used to go to war for the express purpose of continuing the enslavement of an entire people – that sounds almost ridiculous in its expansiveness but that’s precisely what happened; these folks thought God was on their side and from the pulpit to the town square were constantly barking about white superiority – still has 72 out of 100 of those people nationally saying it’s offensive, and another 7 saying it is equally offensive and a symbol of regional pride, putting you at 79 out of 100 black Americans, that is not inconsequential. The numbers are even higher when you look solely at black individuals in the south, who have to confront it on a daily basis. That would be expected because it’s easier to view it as an abstract symbol, a mere academic discussion, when you’re walking around Los Angeles drinking mango smoothies in flip flops before you head to the beach surrounded by countless races, cultures, and even languages, quite another living in a town of 300 with Bubba waiving it proudly and yammering on about the “Obamination” in the White House.

      There’s also a spotlight mental model happening – most, I’d dare say a super majority (certainly all the people I know) of confederate flag owners aren’t overtly racist but nearly all white supremacists in the South use the confederate flag as a symbol of pride, creating a horns effect. Combine this with the fact people aren’t generally good, on a population basis, at making distinctions between “some”, “most”, and “all” and the outcome is understandable due to augmentation from other mental models (e.g., something bad happens. Somebody is killed or lynched. Confederate flag in the background. Mere association.)

      On a personal note, I put pictures on the blog during our recent road trip through the South and one of the things that shocked me was seeing confederate flags flying high and proud in public. If I’m being brutally honest, I was uncomfortable when I came across them. Aaron and I wouldn’t stop at those businesses for gas or food because, absent other information, all we had to go on was signaling theory and correlation. While most people displaying it might be good people (which I believe to be the case), almost all incorrigible bigots and racists display it, therefore, the probability of the place being owned by someone who would discriminate against us was higher than the absence of a flag would indicate; a sort of evolutionary efficiency mechanism to make split-second decisions that manifests in the modern world in unexpected ways.

      There also could be an incentive bias. Looking at that source data, again, college graduates, who have been around more diversity, tend to be more sensitive to the perception of others; recognizing that signaling theory is real and sometimes, it’s best to change the signal even if it was meant with no offense. If the executives and television producers thought removing the Confederate Flag from officially flying over government buildings was a worthy cause, they might have justified focusing on the explicit racism angle of the story – which is still substantial at around 1/3rd of the country – to manipulate politicians into acting quickly for fear of losing reelection as ammunition was provided to their opposition in the next campaign cycle.

      The funny thing is, being a music major who had to spend years analyzing and studying different types of forms, structures, histories, arrangements, and cultures, I have a much harder time, intellectually, with the banning of the war song Dixie than I do the confederate flag because of it serving as a perfect representation of a specific time, place, political environment, and historical period down to the types of instruments used. For the same reason I can listen to opera, rap, country, electronica and any type of music, appreciating its underlying positives, the contextual merit of the piece – what it said about a time and place in America’s story, it’s ability to excite people so they want to take action, masking the horrors of war with the juxtaposition of a cheerful Disney-esq upbeat tempo – makes it incredible despite its offensiveness. And it is offensive. So very, very offensive. It’s literally a battle call to pick up weapons and kill Northerners even if you have to die in the process, spilling your blood upon the alter of your nation (the Confederacy), all in a quest to do the “Lord’s work” (maintain slavery and subjugate blacks). I mean, my God, how can you get more immoral than that? Nevertheless, it’s still an example of brilliantly effective music, serving a purpose like a tool; the moment it starts playing, all of those endless hours of musical theory, political science, and American history courses come back to me as I isolate each instrumental line in my head and think about the time and place when it would have been played in public. I can’t experience it the same way most people experience it exactly like a professional athlete can’t watch his or her sport with the same impartiality as someone who never played. My brain is too busy lighting up, viewing all the nuance and angles like an architect looking at a 3D model, seeing canons roaring and cotton plantations burning. To me, if you find the song in my iTunes library of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of tracks of every imaginable genre, there’s no racial component at all. I’m still smart enough not to play it in public because I know it’s unreasonable to expect everyone else to know my background, educational history, music theory training, and the reason I’m interested in the composition despite my abhorrence for its message.

      • “I’m not Southern.”

        Do you meant that Southern is a self-identified label (and you decry it’s associations), or that Missouri (and your particular background) was never Southern to begin with?

        • I wouldn’t disavow the South. I love the South, it just hates me. If there wasn’t so much
          intolerance, I’d live someplace like Tennessee, South Carolina, or perhaps even Georgia. Huge families, big porches, giant estates, Coca-Cola, low taxes, everybody knowing everybody else.

          In my case, it’s … complicated. Missouri was a border state in the Civil War. Geographically and culturally, Missouri is half Northern, half Southern, half urban, and half rural. It’s roughly 300 miles tall and 200 miles across with 69,704 square miles of land (for comparison, England is only 50,346 square miles). It has a GDP of more than $284 billion, making it the economic equivalent of the entire nation of Finland.

          I was born and spent part of childhood in the light red part, with many members of that side of the family having the twang, using words like “worsh” instead of “wash”, attending fundamentalist protestant churches, very “God and Guns”, trailer parks, and country music; fried okra, cooking with bacon grease.

          However, in elementary school, my parents moved hundreds of miles North and West to roughly two hours below Omaha, near the Missouri/Kansas/Iowa/Nebraska border. For the next decade, I might as well have been living in Chicago, Columbus, or Indianapolis. There was nothing even remotely Southern about it.

          Add to all of this: My father was born and raised in San Francisco, California, so he was West Coast in behavior and speech, which is what we were exposed to as kids; that’s the accent we all picked up, this non-accent of sorts.

          Then, I spent my early adulthood living in Central New Jersey when Aaron and I went off on our own to study classical music.

          In other words: It’s complicated. But, no. I don’t think of myself as Southern. I’m Midwestern.

        • This point about regional identities is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve also lived in three different regions in the US, and am thinking about where my spouse and I want to move to, to start a family. So we’re thinking about a lot of the same issues that Aaron and you did, but expressed differently, of course.

        • And I would add that the struggle and mixing of different parts of your own identity, and the way you articulate them on here, is one part of what makes reading you and chatting with you so interesting and fun. Because I feel that same conflict in me as well, on many axes as well (of course I can’t articulate these things a fraction of as well as you can). I suppose an increasingly large amount of people do, as people move around more and the world becomes more interconnected and fluid.

        • Hexar

          Joshua–outside of California, I’ve never really been to the western states, but it seems like they would be perfect for you. Outside of Utah, the western states aren’t very religious compared to the plains or the south and it’s more individualistic and has lower taxes than the midwest or the east coast.

        • anonona

          Josh, several things:

          1) When did you change your “About the author” section? I just noticed you link to your Letterman jacket business; in the past you had said you didn’t want aspects of your personal life so out in the open (although long time readers knew about it. Are you feeling more confident after Obergefell, or is that just a part of the new website overhaul (driving views?)?

          2) I disagree with your example of people defending the Canadian professor as social justice warriors. The people denigrating the so-called “thought police” are offended that others are offended; I would say the social justice warriors are more those would be offended at the remarks in the first place (and see to “bring” the professor to [social?] justice). Just like some people could see a homeowners association as limiting freedom, so too one could see them as expanding freedoms (to not hear music blaring from a neighbor’s party at night, etc.). Obviously you understand this point but I think you’re using the words differently than how they are normally referred to today.

          3) Do the states in the South really have “lower” taxes? What I mean is–nearly all red states receive more money from the federal government than they put in. It can’t be too hard to have lower taxes when you’re receiving that kind of subsidy…when you factor in how most military bases are in the south, and many of the largest private employers in the south are related to public spending (the biggest private employer in Mississippi is a Navy ship builder that should have gone bankrupt long ago) it’s hard to give much weight to the small government argument you hear from a lot of people from those states…

        • 1. I didn’t. As the blog is upgraded (see sidebar), the default code for that section pulls from whatever was put there years ago when I set this up. I haven’t bothered to edit it or figure out what should go there since there are 3 or 4 dozen more important things we’re working on in the meantime, like getting the forum launched, making ads on the category pages non-intrusive, and improving page speed loads. I couldn’t even tell you what it says at the moment because I haven’t paid more than a few seconds’ attention to it to note, “Oh, yeah … that still needs to be looked at sometime.”

          Unrelated to the “About the Author” bar but still in your question: Yes, Aaron and I, and a lot of people we know, are feeling very, very different after Obergefell, which is worthy of a post on its own. I’m shocked a bit by how much it reframed our worldview. Maybe I’ll write about it sometime this summer.

          2. I am. It’s an intentional allusionary (somewhat sloppy) dig referencing my belief that horseshoe theory is the right prism through which these folks should be viewed. The radical left-wing social justice warriors on Tumblr and the radical right-wing traditionalists on Free Republic are two sides of the same Janus coin; non-thinking, irrational ideologues vomiting nonsense. The labels mean nothing – mere distractions – because their behavior, attitudes, and methodologies are identical, they simply believe different things. You can interchange them as you will because for all intents and purposes, they’re the same people.

          Whether it’s a college professor saying “straight, white, cis-gendered males” are all potential rapists and should be put at a disadvantage to other groups to make up for their privilege or an engineer at Ford calling his gay workers “sodomites” and ranting “homosexual behavior leads to death”, both think their opinion is perfectly reasonable and both scream about oppression when everyone else shuts them down for their stupidity; that the people saying they are offended are somehow not entitled to be offended or that either “political correctness” or “the patriarchy” (insert whatever loaded term you want here depending on your worldview) is restricting their ability to be jerks to everyone else. “Why won’t they just take it? Why are they so offended” seems to be their perpetual mating call.

          Let’s take two classic examples.

          First: Here is the comment history for a prolific, long-time commentator at a popular right-wing website at which I occasionally lurk for the purpose of seeing how certain rural, high-school only, elderly Americans view economic proposals. Read a page or two to get an idea of the world view. Read the Ford engineer’s comments and we’re talking about the same type of person; there isn’t much difference there.

          Second: Here is a video response from a radical SWJ offended that others are offended by the phrase ‘die cis scum’, which tells the 99% of the population that is happy with their birth gender they should commit suicide. One would think straight, white, men are Satan incarnate if you bother to look up this person’s other writings and videos.

          Despite polar opposites in what they are proposing, it’s the same demonization, the same bafflement at others’ reaction, the same affectation. The person in the video could grow out hair, get a perm, throw on a tea dress, move to Alabama, and change the group she’s talking about to black Americans, gays, Democrats and it would sound the same as the first commentator at Free Republic.

          But, yes. From a linguistic purity standpoint, you’re absolutely correct. Like the gloriously judgmental baby in the attached image, I was throwing a combination of shade and side-eye.

          3. If you are a rich individual with certain types of holdings: Yes. The fact that the state, as a whole, receives more in Federal aid than it sends into the treasury via tax revenue is inconsequential to the individual in any given fiscal year looking at his or her own books. If, for example, I were to move to Florida or Tennessee tomorrow, the government would be taking ~6% less of every adjusted dollar in profit my household-level estate generates (it varies by type of income – Tennessee, for example, still taxes dividends and interest). If you’re talking in a macro-sense, it depends. In some cases, low taxes can result in fantastic societal benefits and greater overall living standards and efficiency (e.g., Switzerland). In others, you can drive the place into near bankruptcy because you make the taxes regressive on the poor and cut services that provide a lot of public good (e.g,. Kansas under Brownback). It’s all about incentives and how those incentives change behavior.

      • Matt

        I’m curious as to how people would have reacted to this poll if it was taken before the shooting incident. Sadly, we will never be able to know, but my guess is that you would have a significantly fewer people saying it is a symbol of racism. I know a few people from the South who are frustrated that the actions of one crazy white supremacist can suddenly change people’s perceptions toward a flag that for them represents states rights and southern pride (I was at first surprised at how much Southern people identify with the South, but I guess it makes sense when you realize how culturally different the South is from the rest of the country). It’s interesting that somehow a flag that doesn’t usually get much attention and is fairly common in the South (I know someone who has a few lying around because people give them to their kids at various events) suddenly becomes taboo as a symbol of racism. I think that while it would be a mistake to intentionally continue to associate with the flag going forward, it would also be a mistake to assume that people flying the flag are abominable racist bigots.

        It’s also interesting how this symbol reinterpretation has already happened famously in history at least once – with the Swastika. Far before its adoption by the Nazis, the Swastika is a symbol that appears historically in various cultures and time periods in Europe and Asia. The most notable use is in Hinduism as a symbol for peace or goodness.

  • Hexar

    Your article has got me thinking. You mention here (correctly) about how America’s free speech laws make it very unique, even compared to countries it is very similar to. We are bombarded with media stories and various rankings about how America is just not measuring up to other western countries in a variety of areas. A good future article would be on what makes America unique or great in comparison to countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and The UK (the countries it shares the most similarity with).

    • That was going to be my 4th of July article! I got about 1/5th the way through it and got sidetracked by everything else that was going on, figuring I’d try to finish it before next year. Maybe I’ll publish it, anyway …

      • Hexar

        I eagerly anticipate that article. It will be good to read some positive information about America for once.

  • FratMan

    Joshua, you’ve yet to comment on faux incrementalism and the tendency of every rights movement to eventually overreach.

    Faux Incrementalism: If you study movements, every successful right begins by stating “We are not asking for X” even though X truly is the end game. For instance, when you read old cases about decriminalization for gays, it will be explicitly added, “It’s not like we’re trying to let gays get married.” Essentially, the Overton Window of the time wouldn’t permit truly stating the real game plan—instead of demanding a comprehensive bundle of rights, they are pursued one at a time out of pragmatism and giving false assurances that something desired is not desired.

    Overreach: There is no legislation that Congress could pass that would lead the NAACP to say “Our work is done.”

    Every rights group will keep asking for more and more until it oversteps. Blacks seeking the right to vote and abolish Jim Crow? Morally correct. Eventually we see calls for affirmative action and the creation of hate crimes, as if murder doesn’t suggest a certain ill will towards a person automatically. Race-based affirmative action would be an example of the tendency for a movement to overreach.

    So the real million-dollar question is this: What if you possess the wisdom on a certain issue to see an end game you find disagreeable but agree with an incremental step that will unfortunately move you closer to the end game you do not support?

    • Support what is right. Fight the overreach.

      If the overreach is egregious, you should be able to convince others of your position. If you can’t, to hold justice hostage as a strategic move is profoundly immoral.

      • FratMan

        Does this scare you as much as it scares me? The thought of machines telling you what is “truth” seems likely to entrench preferred authority and put us at the mercy of the index-definer’s biases.


        • A lot of what Google is doing scares me. Most people don’t even realize search results are now tailored so they are seeing an echo chamber unless they purposely change their settings and take countermeasures to see the Internet as it actually is.

  • AC

    For practical purposes, freedom of speech is dead. Many recent examples abound.

    It’s not really freedom of speech when a politician has to apologize for saying “all lives matter.” Does anyone really disagree that all lives matter (except for violent criminals)?

    Or that no one is allowed to even question why earlier this year the the National Climate Data Center (NCDC) clearly and systematically manipulated temperature data sets so that they now magically prove current global warming theory rather than show no warming during the last two decades. Nevermind that there are paper temperature records going back to the 1920s that are suddenly ignored.

    It’s positively Orwellian. You either agree with the program or you’re an enemy of the people and the state. Rational discussion is forbidden.

    • Before I get into the heart of your points, please don’t misunderstand my position – if I were running an institution, I think fostering an environment of vigorous debate would be a strategic and moral imperative under almost all conditions; look at the accounting scandal happening with Toshiba in Japan right now, caused in no small part because the subordinates felt like they couldn’t speak up to their bosses, leading to this “make the numbers work no matter what” culture. Rather, I am saying none of us has any right to that environment. We can quit. We can start a competitor and try to take them down. We can go along with it. We can try to stage an internal coup by bringing on board people like us until we’re in the majority.

      That out of the way: Both examples you provide are perfectly consistent with the American model and history of freedom of speech. In neither case did the government take any role in imprisoning the speaker nor restricting the speech. You can argue the social cost is unfair, or too high, but that has no relationship to the constitutional protection. Neither you, I, nor public figures are entitled to low social costs or consequences of our speech. We never have been. We never will be.

      Martin O’Malley absolutely had, and has, free speech. He did not have to apologize for misspeaking and saying “all lives matter” instead of “all black lives matter” when the latter was a popular hashtag to discuss what many believe was unfair treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. As a politician, he made a calculated, strategic decision that he had a better chance at getting what he wanted by doing so; that his insensitivity to the broader picture would alienate people who might be willing to give him the job he wants. He is not entitled to anyone’s vote. He is not entitled to anyone’s respect.

      In contrast, as of this morning, Donald Trump is the clear above-and-beyond poll leader for the Republican Presidential nomination after effectively calling Mexicans rapists and saying John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he got captured and tortured by the enemy.

      Both are free to say what they said and suffer the consequences accordingly. Neither has ended up in a government jail cell or been forbidden from repeating their comments in public. That is all the founders, or the constitution, has ever promised; it’s a promise that is stronger, and far superior, to every nation in the world.

      The first news story I saw this morning when I went to have my morning cup of coffee was out of Canada. A professor at a college wrote a Facebook post calling for the government to – and I’m paraphrasing – “hang queers”. A former student saw it, reported it to his bosses, and the professor was called in and fired immediately. Besides the fact he very well may have broken Canadian hate speech laws – something that does not and cannot exist in America due to our constitution – the top comment with the most likes is someone calling this ‘thought police’; that he should not have lost his job for expressing his personal opinion. I’m baffled by it because who told these people that was the way it was? In what alternate fantasy world do they live? Did they really just not pay attention in school? Were they raised by a bunch of (forgive the pejorative but it’s an accurate summation) social justice warriors who told them all opinions were equally valid and protected in the social sphere? Life is not a “safe space”. You can offend people and they can respond in kind. It’s part of being an adult; making trade-off decisions, learning to get what you want through the art of political persuasion; knowing when and how to seduce your way into things or standing for an unpopular position because you believe it to be right.

      You want to look at crazy, go pull a copy of the faculty training handbook for the University of California, which lists phrases like “America is the land of opportunity” as “microaggressions” against people who don’t achieve anything in life. It’s fair to say when you’ve gone that far off the deep end we’re in the territory of either what amounts to a secular religion or non compos mentis. Imagine I was hired by a UC grad who had taken all of this to heart. My new boss sees that I wrote a blog post about America being the land of opportunity and fires me. Is it fair? No. Is it rational? No. Is it good for business? No. Will that kind of stupidity ultimately doom the institution? Probably. Is it compatible, consistent, and perfectly acceptable under the 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech? Yes. Absolutely. I was free to write the blog post, the government didn’t interfere with nor stop me from doing so, and I was not imprisoned for sharing my opinion.

      I am not entitled to agreement from my boss. While he or she would be forbidden to fire me for certain characteristics – my race, my gender, my religion, my sexual orientation – my blog post is not now nor has it ever been covered. To say my freedom of speech had been impaired by my firing would be a monumental misunderstanding of the historical and constitutional nature of the first amendment, as well as what the founders believed about it when it was drafted and how the courts have subsequently ruled over the past few centuries. That’s not America. That’s never been America. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences of that speech, no matter how unfair or irrational those consequences are.

  • Derek

    I’m curious as to where you draw the line on doing business with a company due to the views of its leaders. This is a question I’ve been trying to figure out in my own life for years but haven’t been able to come up with any hard and fast rules.

    Back in 2008 I was living in California and participating in ‘No on Prop 8’ rallies, only to learn shortly after the election that a member of my employer’s board of directors had contributed thousands in support Proposition 8. I was very disturbed that a board member would support such a discriminatory law, one that would clearly do harm to many of our approximately 10,000 employees.

    Unfortunately, I was just starting out and not in any financial state to either quit or risk being fired so I just kept my mouth shut. Still, I’ve wondered what I would have done if I’d had the financial resources to walk away. I suppose I rationalized keeping quiet because he was not the CEO, was not reflecting an official policy of the company, and was only one member of the board, but I can’t help but wonder if I would have made the same choice without having the financial considerations. I was disturbed that he was a leader and major shareholder of my employer, making a profit from my work and sending that money to a campaign for discrimination, but he was just one person in a company of 10’000, one shareholder out of thousands.

    I’ve struggled with this question of where to draw the line ever since.

    • Mr.owenr

      I struggled with that question somewhat with my previous employer. Without any detail, they financially supported a cause that is not acceptable. I went to work for them anyway. I learned to mind my own business, and put my needs first. What entitles me to be the only one in the world who does not encounter offensive beliefs? What entitles me to be the only one in the world who holds beliefs that everyone else must agree with? Nothing, that’s what. My rights end where another’s begin, and personally I couldn’t take it if I caused harm to someone, even if they (in my opinion) deserved a good backlash.

      Regarding the post at large, I’m so annoyed when people don’t actually know what freedom of speech is. But I think protection from certain reactions regarding individual speech is just so obvious that many people assume it is in the first amendment. Its almost as if most people are implying that a certain reaction is fundamentally unacceptable and needs to be regulated by law, yet all they can communicate is “The Free Speech!” Its almost as if some people have opinions that they don’t want to be attacked over, and thus claim that attacking all opinions is wrong, but all they can manage to mutter is “OH noes, the thought police!!!!”

      So here is my take on it. 70.6% of Americans are Christians (source one). A quote that is attributed to Jesus is “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (source two). My interpretation being that if I have never had an incorrect opinion or offensive position then sure I’m allowed to react against them. However if someone or something has ever had a questionable position before then it really is offensive and to their shame that they would react (with harm) against another’s opinion. This is further reinforced within the academic school setting where people are allowed to do what amounts to brainstorming ideas, however you’re not allowed to question the validity of another person’s idea in class. The thing you get graded on is whether or not you participated in class by having an idea (at least that was my college experience). It is not easy to just switch gears after 16+ years in school not reacting against people to suddenly thinking it is ok to do so. Also whose parent didn’t tell them to mind their own business (source three). With it being pounded in again and again and again its just so easy to see where my strong initial reaction comes from, and to relate to other people who have the same reaction. Regardless of if I think my reaction is right or wrong.


      Source One: http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/

      Source Two: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8&version=KJV

      Source Three: http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/williams-hank-jr/takin-back-the-country-36120.html

      • Derek

        A fair opinion and not all that dissimilar from my wife’s thoughts when I posed a somewhat similar hypothetical situation. She said everyone is entitled to their opinion, and basically she’d mind her own business as long as the paychecks don’t bounce and her employer wasn’t breaking any laws.

        I also agree that I would not wish to harm the person whom I disagree with, but instead hopefully through dialogue and debate change their mind. This is what I rather inelegantly and quite unclearly was trying to say when I mentioned speaking up in my earlier post. Attempting to contact the board member and have a respectful conversation where I explain why many employees would feel offended by the donation. Trying to stir the pot and get fellow employees agitated would have only served to cause strife between employees (it’s a pretty conservative company in most departments) and in my experience only leads to people becoming more hardened in their opinions.

        I don’t believe I am entitled to have everyone share my beliefs and opinions on morality, nor to never encounter beliefs I don’t like, but I do believe there is a point where those views are so contrary to what I believe to be right that I must stand up for those morals even if there are negative consequences. There is a point where I consider something so unjust that I would refuse to undertake any action which furthers that wrong. Perhaps that means quitting my job, perhaps losing longstanding friendships. So be it. I don’t know where that line is exactly, but I hope I’ll recognize it when it approaches.

  • This is to reinforce your point Joshua that “freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequence of that speech.”