Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Speaking Freely

I exercise my free speech rights nearly continually, and the government is my biggest target.  Fortunately for me, “criticism of the government and advocacy of unpopular ideas . . . are almost always permitted” under the First Amendment.  So whether it’s my books, articles, blogs, or podcasts, my keyboard is rarely at rest, and my big mouth is rarely shut.  (In fact, my contrarian jabbering as a child led my mother to accurately predict my careers as both lawyer and writer.)  But I sometimes forget how lucky I am – lucky not only compared to citizens of other countries who can be imprisoned or even killed for speaking out against their governments, but also compared to others here in the United States.

Take, for example, the student at Marquette University who criticized the federal government.  He didn’t swear or use any of the words that I use on a daily basis; he just wrote that the government is “dangerous, powerful, and relentless.”  Unfortunately, he was silenced because too many people on campus found this description offensive.  And the administration did one better, declaring it “patently offensive.”  (I wonder if this is the same administration that announced a school nickname change from "Golden Eagles" to "Gold," something that I, Dwyane Wade, and nearly every Marquette student and graduate found patently offensive.)

And a Binghamton University student ran into even more trouble when he criticized the Department of Social Work.  In addition to being silenced, his school insisted that he “leave the program for one year with no guarantee of return, required him to apologize, and demanded that he publicly disavow his own views.”  Now that's life-ruining.  

It’s baffling why universities, of all places, would want to stifle the freedom of expression.  If I were a professor at a university and had to listen to complaints about another student’s speech, I would respond something like this:

If you don’t agree with him, why don’t you debate him instead of running to me to try to silence him?  Post your own flier.  Start your own blog.  Stand on the street corner and give your own speech.  And if criticism of the government really offends you on a personal level, you might want to consider getting over it.  After all, when you leave this high-priced, protective bubble that we call a university, you’re going to be subjected to far worse on a daily basis.  In fact, if you are one of the graduates who is lucky enough to get a job, your coworkers will inevitably criticize not only the federal government, their company, and other coworkers, but will also criticize you personally.  So you just learn to live with it, and stop running to authority figures every time you think you find something “offensive.”     

But it doesn’t just stop with university students.  Even professional golfer Phil Mickelson ran into trouble for criticizing the government.  Phil – or “Lefty” as he is known in golf circles – pays an incredibly high marginal tax rate of 63 percent.  In other words, for the last several million dollars that Lefty earned last year, he got to keep 37 cents of each of those dollars.  Now, if I had a marketable skill like Lefty’s (I don’t), and had to give away 63 percent of most of the dollars I earned (my marginal rate is lower but, in my opinion, is still “offensive”), I would be highly upset.  And, not surprisingly, so was Lefty, who publicly criticized the federal and state governments that conspired to take nearly two-thirds of his money.

But the story doesn’t end there.  As you might have guessed, several people who don’t have to turn over 63 cents of every dollar they make found Lefty’s comments “offensive.”  This forced Lefty to retreat: “I apologize to those I have upset or insulted, and assure you I intend to not let it happen again.”

I don’t like Lefty’s apology, and not just because of the split infinitive.  First, I just can’t imagine how people can be that sensitive.  And second, I didn’t realize that the federal government, the U.S. Treasury, and/or the IRS needed us citizens to be insulted on its/their behalf.  But, in any case, Lefty seems to find himself in the now familiar position of being silenced and apologetic. 

I, on the other hand, will take a different approach: should anyone ever be offended or insulted by my criticism of the federal or state governments, or any of their agents or branches, I will not apologize.  I may not enjoy the safety of living in a protective college bubble, or have the ability to earn millions of dollars for doing my job, but at least I have my freedom of speech.


  1. You may have missed it, but there were several news articles after Mickelson shot his mouth off quoting tax accountants pointing out that it was highly likely he would be paying an effective tax rate of substantially LESS than the 63% he claimed. In response, Mickelson made no attempt to confirm the accuracy of his suspect figures. Instead, he apologized.

  2. Jim, great catch. As I was reading that, I was thinking that 63% seemed high. Even with California's state tax rate (which far exceeded even Wisconsin's), I was thinking that the marginal rate wouldn't be that high. Also, doesn't a large part of the soc. sec. and related taxes cap out after about $150k? If so, they really wouldn't impact the marginal rate for a guy making several million per year. Regardless, I think it's undisputed that he could save many hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in state tax by moving to Fla. or another no-state-tax state. That's real money, even for millionaire athletes. (Although, Calif. still has the cool factor.)