There’s no easier punching bag for people on all parts of the political spectrum than a person who even subtly implies that freedom of speech is not absolute. And yet, here I go.

During last week’s debate over reggae artist Buju Banton’s appearance in Ann Arbor, some people were outraged by the message this apparently homophobic musician furthers with every performance. Some simply decried the Blind Pig for allowing him to perform, while others thought it their right to prevent him from performing.

The latter group drew criticism of its own. While it’s okay to protest hateful speech, the critics argued, it’s never okay to try to silence fringe viewpoints. This isn’t a new argument — the battle for free speech is about protecting fringe viewpoints, because those are the ones that can’t protect themselves.

While I understand that argument, I wonder why that’s the rule.

Liberals like to argue that the Constitution is an abstract concept, not simply a laundry list of rights. They reject absolute, concrete readings of most parts of the document because they believe such nearsightedness detracts from the Constitution’s larger purpose — to create a free, progressive, prosperous society.

There is no more prominent example of this than the Second Amendment. Liberals laugh at the right’s literal reading of the right to bear arms. They contend that the Second Amendment was a proxy to counter the tyranny America was emerging from. It wasn’t meant to imply that every citizen may own a gun, but simply affirmed that the nation’s military would serve the will of the people and not the whims of a solitary despot.

I happen to buy that argument. I think it makes sense that the framers intended the Second Amendment to counter the evils they suffered under their former British overlords.

But what if the First Amendment is also a proxy — not meant to be read literally, but rather meant as a check against the tyrannical ways that speech had been suppressed in the colonies? Could it be that the free speech part of the First Amendment never stood for “anyone can say anything at any time,” but rather, simply meant the government cannot suppress individual ideas for the furtherance of its official stance? I buy that argument, too.

One of the most famous articulations regarding the boundaries of freedom of speech was made by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in the 1919 Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States. Holmes wrote that imminently dangerous speech that serves no purpose, like falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, isn’t protected under the First Amendment.

Most of us can agree with the result, but I contend that the line Holmes drew was rather arbitrary. Some libertarians have contested that even yelling “fire” in a crowded theater could be a protected right. If it causes problems, the theater owner has a claim against the shouter, but that doesn’t take away the shouter’s initial right to shout “fire” whenever and wherever he pleases.

Like my libertarian friends, I believe that to draw a boundary line anywhere in the realm of free speech is to question all speech. But unlike them, I don’t see this as a problem. Yes, speech can be limited. Rather than hiding behind the First Amendment, individual speakers must protect their ideas with veracity, logic and persuasion.

Freedom of speech was designed as a proxy for creating a society in which constructive ideas freely flourish and can be used as a base for progress and solutions. It wasn’t meant to sustain idiocy and hatred, and yet too often, we Americans proudly say that it was. By elongating the First Amendment to protect obscene hate speech, we harm our freedom and prosperity. That undermines the actual larger purpose of the Constitution.

Some will say that what I argue is dangerous because once speech is limited, even legitimate minority arguments will be suppressed. That would be true, but only if we take the lazy, passive approach to rights that we’ve gotten used to taking under the status quo.

Technology has brought us to the point at which free knowledge exchange can’t be seriously threatened — at least not so long as the abstract reading of the First Amendment as a check against totalitarianism remains in force. When speech is no longer protected simply because it is speech, we won’t all magically be deemed mute. Instead, we will begin to actively assess the merits of what we’re saying and what is being said in the million conversations that make up our nation.

But even that may be a frightening notion to some.

Imran Syed can be reached at

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