Lange: Common Sense Speech

May 22, 2015

In the fall of 1955 I was quarrying stone in the Adirondacks, and feeling pretty tough. One evening, a buddy and I stopped at the Redfield Inn for a couple of beers. I was talking colorfully about how quarry work built muscle, when I noticed two important things: It was a loggers’ bar, and I had collected an audience – a hostile one, too.

Looking back, I could be miffed at the loggers’ reaction to my exercise of the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. But they were not Constitutional scholars; and I was being really stupid.

Americans fancy themselves to be what those loggers were not. I lay it all to right-wing media pundits, who proclaim a threat in almost every government action. Just as Senator McCarthy, 65 years ago, warned us of Communists within, confused people today are led toward certainty by false watchmen who warn of attacks on the Constitution.

Trouble is, the Constitution can be read to mean whatever anybody wants it to mean. The Supreme Court is occupied full-time interpreting it. Which leads to my mantra: Give me the person who asks the right questions, but spare me the character with the answers.

The fear engendered by these purveyors of paranoia has grown so pervasive that Texans, hearing the military will conduct exercises there this summer, have demanded the Governor monitor the activity to thwart what many are sure is a government takeover. The notion is utterly bizarre, yet widely credited.

A group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative recently exercised its First Amendment right by holding a Prophet Mohammad cartoon contest in Dallas. Two men, inflamed by the intentional affront, tried to shoot up the meeting and were killed.

The Constitution is a powerful machine. But as with all powerful machines, its application requires some common sense.

With a right comes the responsibility to accept the reactions to its exercise. Pope Francis, speaking of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, said, “It is true that you should not react violently, but... if my good friend Doctor Gaspardi says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch.”

We get too soon old, and too late smart. But I learned something important at the age of only twenty when I shot off my mouth in the Redfield Inn. The freedom of speech enshrined in the Constitution is, I found, best enjoyed with a strong splash of common sense.

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.