Whatever Happened To Freedom of Speech?


Every day I hear people saying that today's generation has no moral compass or conscience. To the contrary, I believe most young people want an effective moral compass and want to guide their decision-making, especially ...

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Every day I hear people saying that today's generation has no moral compass or conscience. To the contrary, I believe most young people want an effective moral compass and want to guide their decision-making, especially in delicate areas, with a well formed conscience.

The problem is not the moral compass or the well formed conscience, but rather is that we live in a world filled with double standards and wishy-washy moral principles. Most of us will agree, no matter what our theological reference point might be, that there are basic moral principles we all agree on. Lying and cheating is not acceptable. Exploiting other human beings is not acceptable. Manipulating and deceiving others is not acceptable. Violence makes right is not acceptable. Being honorable and respectful of peoples' differences is foundational. Being inclusive rather than exclusive is also important. Not judging a book by its' cover or another by their politics, their religion, their ethnicity, the color of their skin or their sexual orientation is also essential. Most of us would prefer to be known by the content of our character and integrity.

Unfortunately, that is not how people in general respond. We tend to react rather than respond. Gossip and name calling fuels the hatred and misinterpretation of the truth which causes people to build walls instead of bridges within human relationships.

If we want students to be more expressive, we need to respect their expressiveness, even if it makes us uncomfortable or they speak to issues that we vehemently oppose. Freedom of speech and expression should not be conditional. People should have the right to say what they think without trampling on another's rights.

We must lead by example, by expressing and protecting the right to freedom of speech. If our young people see a constant double standard, it will discourage them from expressing how they feel.

One of the great criticisms of the present generation of young people is that they are socially indifferent and not interested in our larger community. If they are socially indifferent, we must ask the question, "who are their examples and how are they being challenged to become more involved?"

As a nation, whenever we have been at war people's passions around war and peace, rightfully so, are stimulated. War touches the core of every community and causes people of every age and human circumstance to think about its' value and whether or not it is just.

Our presence in Iraq is polarizing our nation. It is polarizing families and neighborhoods. People of every age and human circumstance have developed a specific moral position on this war. The position many people are taking is based on their moral perspectives, their religious faith and their political views. Most people are intensely committed to their point of view, no matter what the consequences.

In recent times, there have been demonstrations all over the country supporting the war and our military presence there as well as demonstrations protesting the war and calling it an unjust conflict. Whatever one's political perspective is on our presence in Iraq, we must all respect people's right to express what they believe, especially if they do not impose their beliefs upon you or attempt to proselytize you.

Recently, the local press carried a series of articles about an eighty year old clergyman who was arrested at the Smith Haven Mall while having coffee with a group of friends. He was arrested for wearing a t-shirt that some people in the mall found offensive. The senior citizen was ordered to remove the t-shirt or leave. When Deacon Don Zirkel refused to take the t-shirt off, he was informed by mall security that he would be arrested for trespassing. The clergyman refused to remove the t-shirt and leave the mall. The t-shirt read: "4000 troops, one million Iraqis, Dead." On the back was single word, "Enough." The white t-shirt did have some red splotches on it.

It is important to be aware of the facts of that cold Saturday afternoon in late March when Deacon Don Zirkel was arrested. The sequence of events that follow were confirmed by people who were there and by Deacon Don Zirkel himself. Earlier in the day, Deacon Don and three others participated with more than 300 others in a chilly outdoor protest marking the death of the 4000th US service person in Iraq.

After walking with permission on the outer parameter of the mall, Deacon Zirkel and three others went inside for some hot coffee, some frankfurters and some French fries.

"Some of the customers are offended by the words on your shirt," he was told. Mrs. Zirkel, one of the four having coffee, answered, "I am offended by many of the words on the t-shirts worn by teenagers here. Are you going to order those customers to leave too?"

Needless to say, they ignored Mrs. Zirkel. The security police said the mall was private property and management could decide who is welcome and who is not. Then, they repeated their order for him to remove his t-shirt or leave. Deacon Zirkel refused. The officer asked again and then threatened arrest. The Deacon said, "I respect your consciences and I ask you to respect mine." He said, "There is no punishment for those responsible for the deaths of so many Iraqis and Americans and the pain suffered by their grieving wives and husbands, family and friends, and orphaned children; yet I am threatened with arrest because six truthful words on my t-shirt offended somebody!"

"This is America, whatever happened to freedom of expression - freedom of speech?"

The police proceeded to tell Deacon Zirkel that he was under arrest. He was asked to stand and walk outside to the police car. He said he was not going to participate in his own arrest. So, they called for a wheelchair and lifted him into it, only after he had eaten his last French fry.

By now, a large crowd had gathered. Some booed the officers. Many applauded as Deacon Zirkel was led by wheelchair to a patrol car. Half a dozen antiwar protestors sang peace songs.

Deacon Zirkel made it very clear after his arrest that the police were very friendly and respectful. He sat for two hours in a holding cell at the police station with his hands cuffed in front of him. He was quoted as saying when he left the police station, "it was a perfect position to pray, mostly for people who are unjustly arrested and physically abused." He made a further point after being discharged of saying that the officers who dealt with him were exceptionally professional and he said, "Thank you."

He did point out rather clearly, some inaccuracies that most of the media and press carried relative to his arrest. Deacon Zirkel was adamant that he never handed out antiwar pamphlets to mall goers and that the mall security never told him to stop and turn his t-shirt inside out. He carried no sign, offered no pamphlets and sang no songs or chants. It was too cold. All he did was walk back and forth the length of the peace line counting and encouraging those who were walking for peace at the time. He was quoted as saying, "maybe we could be charged with aiding and abetting the peacemakers. They weathered the cold. I got to sit in a warm police station. Still wearing my shirt."

It's ironic that Deacon Zirkel would be asked to leave the mall or remove his t-shirt, when the mall itself sells many more disturbing t-shirts with disturbing and vulgar slogans - not to mention the countless people who sport t-shirts that are equally offensive and disturbing.

If we are going to be sensitive to every person's objection, then let's be consistent and not use a double standard. If we're going to be consistent, then the mall will probably have few patrons. This is the same mall that a few years back allegedly was going to allow a KKK rally to gather in its' parking lot until people protested.

Maybe we should pick a day and boycott the Smith Haven Mall in protest of it harassing our senior citizens who were merely having a cup of coffee and giving witness to peace. Who wants to support a business venue that picks on old people and represses freedom of expression!