Vail Daily editorial: No ‘buts’ about this | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily editorial: No ‘buts’ about this

the Vail Daily Editorial Board

Here’s some sobering news.

A recent poll conducted by YouGov.com, a public-policy research group, shows that 41 percent of Americans support criminal penalties for so-called “hate speech,” defined as disparaging ethnic, religious or other groups. Only 38 percent opposed the idea.

As with virtually any public polling these days, YouGov’s statistically valid survey asked for the political affiliation of respondents. Of those, 51 percent of Democrats support criminal penalties for offensive speech. Among Republicans, a lower, but still disturbing percentage ­— 37 percent — support such penalties.

What this survey means is that an alarmingly large number of Americans believe this country should essentially gut one of the cornerstones of our constitutional republic, the First Amendment.

It’s brief, so we’ll print the entire text of the First Amendment here:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

There are no exceptions. “Congress shall make no law.” That should apply to much of what that legislative body does, but that’s a topic for another day.

Now, the right to free speech is often misunderstood. People also tend to forget that free speech for me also means free speech for thee.

The bottom line of free speech is even more concise than the amendment from which it springs — if our constitution doesn’t protect offensive speech, it doesn’t protect any speech.

It’s offensive when a group of Nazis march through a Jewish neighborhood. It’s offensive when the small handful of people who attend a certain church protest at military funerals.

But that’s part of living in a free and open society.

On the other hand, it’s also perfectly acceptable for an employer to fire an employee for speech the company doesn’t agree with — another part of “free speech” that’s often misunderstood.

Being in the information business, people who work at this newspaper tend to be First Amendment absolutists. That can be a hard position to defend, and, on certain days, even harder to live with. Ultimately, though, we’re all better off with the rights we enjoy now. And remember, any time anyone says, “I support free speech, but…” they don’t support free speech at all.