Last Sunday, in Alexandria, Virginia, the closing hymn at the Baptist church I attended with my daughter made a powerful point. “I promise my words will not harm you,” the choir and congregation sung. “I promise my words will do you no harm.”
There’s a huge push right now to value free speech above the words we use, to honor what some feel is a constitutional right that words have to inflict pain. But mainly, the battle over free speech is thought to be a side show, secondary and insignificant, overshadowed by the budget and program fights over safety net services, and by the distractions over education in the states, where unprecedented school closings and new standards, some which consider race, point to a looming fall crisis. Add reproductive rights for women, healthcare, food safety, global conflicts, and free speech seems an abstract issue, but it’s not.
Each of the issues of politics, and every political decision, is a transaction of speech. From the myth that ambulatory centers and government-mandated vaginal probes benefit women’s health, to the insults and shame Texas’ Rick Perry and others have used to silence and denigrate women, to the 30-second commercials pandering to the worst fears of the uninformed about health care, to the Supreme Court’s rulings on voting rights and same sex marriage benefits, to the Zimmerman trial about the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, every issue of politics and justice engages and touches free speech.
Free speech isn’t a stand-alone right like property ownership. It is a transactional right; one at the center of every decision and law. Through free speech, we put on display our values and actions, our personalities and beliefs, our best logic, our anger and comfort and intent.
I wish Maury Povich began his show with the Alfred Street Baptist Church anthem, “My words will do you no harm.” But more, I wish political leaders took the same pledge. Free speech is more central to democracy than taxes. In fact, the “no tax” pledge is an example of the effectiveness of speech!
But that pledge, and many others, broke the edict of no harm. Routinely, the moral imperative of “do no harm,” at the center of peace and prosperity, is ignored for greed and political gain.
Free speech is not a freedom intended to be used to destroy or restrict other rights; its foundation is the evidence and reason of truth.
Truth as a body of knowledge always has paradoxes, always has exceptions and contradictions; horrible instances that challenge its progress. But, in one example, the horrific acts of abortion that Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell performed were caught and punished under the same laws that many states now seek to overturn.
His acts are being used as an excuse to abandon truth: improved oversight is needed for reproductive rights, not more restrictive laws that use a doctor’s crimes to punish the women who were his desperate victims. Their stories are absent from the dialogue as states push women into choices that offer more of the same grave dangers.
Not a single bill, especially the one in Texas, would grant and protect the choices and safety of Dr. Gosnell’s female victims. Instead, the bills restrict and remove their options and further limit their choices. Denying reproductive services doesn’t improve women’s health. It puts in place a political agenda of fear.
These bills, and many others, break the oath of “first, do no harm.” They also violate an important moral promise of our society, that our words will not do harm. These bills, and so many of our political discussions, rewrite the highest document of our government, turning the ideals of free speech into self-serving principles.
The right of free speech should remind us that our words should do no harm. We would do well to model and remember the Alexandria congregation’s simple but earnest promise of social responsibility, moral strength and civil commitment that is the foundation of its ideal.