I have always assumed that most people are familiar with the stereotypical example of a case in which the First Amendment right to free speech does not apply: crying out loudly, “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.
I have also assumed that most people understand why that speech act is not protected: because it endangers the lives and limbs of the theatergoers, who, panicking at the cry, would trample one another in trying to escape.
It is also the case that uttering words calculated to incite a crowd to riot are not protected, nor is publicly lying about someone with the intent to defame them. So, too, are what are called “fighting words,” defined by the Supreme Court in 1942 as words which, "by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” The underlying assumption in these cases is, again, that harm may come to others because of those words, so we do not enjoy complete freedom in uttering them.
It seems evident, after a bit of thought, that all of the guaranteed freedoms of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution have limits, because there can always be circumstances in which their exercise threatens harm to others without justification.
The same can be said for freedoms not specified by the Constitution, but implied by it. Consider the freedom to dress as you wish. Most of the time, one’s choice of clothes to wear is not governed by any law, but is entirely up to an individual’s free choice. Yet, even in this case, there are limits: Dressing in a regulation police uniform in order to masquerade as a real policeman is against the law. Wearing no clothes at all in public is, in most places, unlawful.
The circumstances under which freedoms may be curtailed vary, of course, but they usually involve a threat to the community that can only be counteracted by the imposition of appropriate restrictions upon all the community’s members.
During the blitz in London, when German bombing raids took place regularly and caused widespread death and destruction, the city’s residents were subjected to a number of regulations that abrogated their normal freedom of movement and domestic practices. They had to go to public shelters when the alarm sounded and they had to prevent light from escaping their dwellings in order to not to reveal to bomber pilots the presence of dwellings.
Some people did resent these blitz rules, and railed against them, but most citizens recognized that, on the whole, the rules were intended to protect the welfare of the public — which they did — and that a concern for the safety of all made it obligatory for citizens to obey them.
Why, then, in this country, which is presently experiencing what might well be regarded as a foreign power’s assault upon our lives, do Americans recoil in righteous anger at suggestions that we be required to wear face masks?
Here in Idaho, we see absurd demonstrations against the governor’s authority to close bars and enforce other rules designed to quell the deadly spread of the coronavirus, and witness the idiotic posturing of those who join those demonstrations in hope of leading the ultra-right, such as our lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin. These protests are all in defiance of the blitz principle that, when the general public is threatened, it is entirely appropriate to require the public’s participation in effective countermeasures which are designed to save lives and are only temporarily inconvenient.
I will not soon forget the ridiculous video in which Ms. McGeachin, sitting in a vaguely military vehicle, places a gun on top of a Bible as some sort of grotesque affirmation that God and the Second Amendment oppose the governor’s efforts — meager as they are — to bring the coronavirus under control.
Ms. McGeachin is an intelligent woman, or so I’d thought, but her ambition to be governor has led her to associate herself with those on the state’s politically far-right, who seize upon any pretext for opposing government action, however sane, lawful and life-saving it may be, and proclaim the inherent freedom of Idaho’s citizens to do whatever they please.
It is more than irritating to watch bar-owner McGeachin openly subvert Gov. Brad Little’s authority while attempting to curry favor among ignorant libertarians who wish for nothing less than a total government abandonment of the poor, the sick and the disabled. These self-styled freedom fighters claim to value, above all, the vaunted pioneer values of independence and self-reliance, but what they really seek is freedom from taxes and all other forms of social responsibility.
You don’t have to be a Democrat to understand that when the community is under attack by a deadly enemy that will kill and disable without constraint, the community must come together to defend itself. And if that defense consists in requiring that everyone experience a brief period of inconvenience by wearing a face mask, then that is what, in the public interest, must be done.
Incidentally, didn’t those frontier pioneers, when their wagon train was threatened with attack, obey the wagon-master’s order to circle the wagons and mount a collective defense?
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU's Oboler Library in 2006.