Freedom of Stupidity or When Freedoms Collide

If you haven’t heard about this, a female passenger flying from LAX to Portland on Tuesday was “excused” from the plane at a stop in Reno for wearing an obscene t-shirt. She is now claiming her 1st Amendment rights have been violated. The NY Times has quoted an ACLU lawyer as saying her t-shirt was protected under the Constitution. I’ll have to remember that the next time my wife wants to throw away one of my favorite old t-shirts.

When I first heard this story, I wondered why it was that the only time Oregon is ever in the news is when a wacko is involved? I was glad to find out that the woman was not an Oregonian – she is actually a Washington resident. Whew! At least we don’t have to claim her. (If you question my use of the word “wacko” here, just listen to an interview with Ms. Heasley…)

But, this is the deal: Is every stupid thing we say or do protected by the First Amendment? It would seem so.

Now, Oregon is a different story, as the Oregon Constitution states, “No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write or print freely on any subject whatever.” Last week the OR Supreme Court extended that to include obscene acts, as long as they are “expressive. ” So, we have yet another Oregon “wacko” story. So far, this isn’t U.S Constitutional issue. However, Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law is. But, let’s try to forget Oregon’s problems for the time being.

One of the problems with some libertarians and liberals (and, yes, even some conservatives) is that they tend to be myopic. Failing to look at an issue holistically, they see the issue in its isolated, out-of-context form, where it’s easier to take extremist, absolutist (and often absurdist) positions. Certainly, you can look at the issue of freedom, of which I am a very strong proponent, and take a position that your freedoms are absolute, and guaranteed by the Constitution (or even by God). You could – and you’d be wrong. But, under the Constitution, you do have an absolute right to be wrong.

This is one of the great things about America: you have the right to be completely and utterly wrong, and to be completely and utterly wrong as loud as you want to be. Unless…

Unless your rights collide with another individual’s rights. Oops…, didn’t think that far ahead. What happens when your inalienable rights cross paths with someone else’s conflicting inalienable rights? Who, then, has the right of way (get it? That was a pun.)

Somewhere along the way, we need to realize that our inherent, inalienable rights are not absolute. (By the way, the words “inherent” and “inalienable” are from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, and these rights include, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Someday I’ll write about how theologically ridiculous this is.)

The Bill of Rights does not talk about “inherent and inalienable” rights – it specifically grants rights on the Consitution’s own authority. Have you ever read the First Amendment? It’s really quite simple:

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.

So simple, and the cause of so much litigation. The concept of a Bill of Rights was in itself fairly controversial; if the founding fathers had ever imagined what people would do to it, I doubt it ever would have been ratified. Common sense (that is, the most basic, elementary thinking of which nearly everyone should be capable) should tell us that there are times when our rights have to give way to others’ rights.

Consider, for a moment, the free exercise of religion. If your religion involved human sacrifice, your rights are limited. You have freedom of speech, but try yelling, “bomb!” on an airplane. Your rights end at the point where they interfere with someone else’s rights. In this case, Southwest Airlines has rights, to, which include deplaning someone wearing an obscene shirt – it’s in their terms of service.

So, Ms. Heasley, just get over it.

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One Response to Freedom of Stupidity or When Freedoms Collide

  1. Elliot Swan says:

    The stupid thing is that the first amendment says nothing about a private company, it’s talking about the government (hence “Congress.” the whole constitution is about the government…). I’ve never heard the ACLU say something that made sense, but they should be smart enough to know to back off this one.

    Of course, I suppose that’d be expecting too much.

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