Free speech isn’t just about talking

Monday, February 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:46 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

I seriously doubt that the framers of the Constitution could have envisioned the many and varied ways in which freedom of expression would manifest itself in the years that have followed its ratification. Hmm, let’s see, there’s rap music shattering the night as it erupts from car stereos, there are pornographic images readily available to be pasted on the screens of home computers and vulgar and offensive language pouring out across the airwaves day and night, just to name a few examples.

Janet Jackson’s episode of wardrobe malfunction during halftime activities at the Super Bowl was all the incentive needed to trigger dialogues about the decline of the country’s moral standards all across America. Within the first 24 hours following the incident, probably everybody who had an opinion on the subject had taken an opportunity to express it. Frankly, I see this as just another occasion for daily life to duplicate television by enabling everyday people to audition for spots on the world’s largest and most spectacular open-air talk show. Except for a few cosmetic changes, it’s doubtful that anything concrete will come out of all this discussion. If things proceed in their usual fashion, the people that think something’s broken will lack the power to fix it, and those that think everything is fine will continue to advance and test the limits.

The optimists, of course, will say at least we’re talking about “stuff.” We’re identifying problems or areas where problems can occur. After all, a naked breast revealed today could open the door to a naked body tomorrow. Oops, we’ve already done that. Well, even if nothing can be done about anything, at least people are getting the chance to express their opinion. And after all, that’s what democracy is about, isn’t it?

Seriously, though, I think there is a positive side to all this. There are some of us who believed for a long time that many people were unaware of some of the serious problems facing the country. But with cable television operating around the clock, ignorance about what’s going on in the world could only be limited to a few isolated souls. Even those without cable television will likely hear the same information repeated on the radio.

It’s certainly no secret by now, for example, that manufacturing and high-tech jobs are being shifted overseas by major corporations. I suppose that’s another form of freedom of expression. Anyone with any interest at all can locate a list of these corporations. And while it’s hard to believe that the working class would sit still and not create a major protest over the situation, at this moment nothing of significance is being done to address this problem. I guess people feel that their political leadership will step in and put a stop before the situation reaches a point of crisis. With so many of the money interests contributing to political campaigns, I’m not sure how that will work out.

For more than a dozen years, this nation has faced a crisis in health care. Insurance companies, drug companies and health organizations have continued to prosper. It has only been the citizens who have suffered. But the media continues to shower us with images of the rich and famous as examples of those who have succeeded, who can afford the very best in health care. Although I believe if this is supposed to make the rest of us feel that it’s our fault that we failed to earn millions on stage or screen, in the field of sports or at boardroom tables, it doesn’t. There are millions of people in this world who have succeeded as productive people and led meaningful lives who never earned more than minimum wage in their lifetime. They have been successful as parents of talented, hard-working children. They have been successful at caring for the sick and developmentally disabled people. They have successfully set examples for young people in their communities and worked to help them find their way in the world. Do these folks deserve quality health care, even if they can’t afford it? It seems to me those are the kind of questions we have to ask ourselves as civilized human beings.

While there are still a lot of folks who would be quick to respond to that question in a positive way, it would be wrong to assume that everyone you know feels that way. I know I have been surprised over the last few years by the way we have divided ourselves on the issue of health care. There was a time when I think most of us could safely say that the most disagreeable, unkempt, drunken street bum was entitled to the best of medical treatment. Yet I’ve heard people openly admit that they resent taxpayer money spent on treating smokers, alcoholics, drug addicts, overweight people or anyone whom they feel contributed to their own poor health.

One thing is for sure. Freedom of expression is alive and well. Where it’s going, nobody knows. Does anybody care?

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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