Can we be adult about this? Can we finally say publicly what so many people believe privately—namely, that the whole Bill of Rights thing was a nice idea in its day, but it’s time to move on?
Now, before you take offense, let’s think practically about this. Yes, the Bill of Rights has all these noble sentiments about freedom of speech and writing, but that was all written in a simpler age. And let’s be charitable about this: These words were penned by ethereal idealists, by people lacking our hard-won practical wisdom. What did they know about violence and conflict, oppression and injustice? They just did not understand the horrible abuses committed in the name of free speech.
Of course, most people who exercise that right do so responsibly, and in doing so, even contribute to social well-being. But just think of the exceptions we so often read about in the headlines! At the lowest level of speech abuse, we are dealing with verbal bullying and harassment, the hurtful use of demeaning words, and the spread of false and malicious information, often concerning respected public figures. Infinitely more pernicious are the unregulated words that lead to incitement, and the promotion of hatred, sexism, and racism. Those Founding Fathers might have seen nothing wrong with all this, but I hope we know better today.
Something needs to change. Of course we are not talking about abolition—and it is hysterical to suggest that any such scheme is in the cards—but no sane person can deny the need for reasonable regulation. In making policy, legislators should not be intimidated by the hysterical extremists who preach an absolute right to private speech. Also, because so much speech abuse occurs in private settings, our intervention must go far beyond the public arena. The vast majority of speech abuse takes place in domestic situations, and that is where regulation has to begin.
Licensing is an absolute priority. While you have the right to free speech, this has to be approved formally by the issuing of permission forms granted by appropriate public agencies. A well-regulated licensing system has the added advantage of controlling the number of people allowed to speak or write freely in particular communities.
A system of waiting periods is just as essential. It’s not acceptable for ordinary private citizens just to mouth off publicly on any subject under the sun without giving official agencies the opportunity to respond and, where necessary, intervene. It seems so simple, but here’s the obvious solution: If you wish to speak or write on a controversial or sensitive subject, then give three days’ notice. Is that so unreasonable?
Seriously, too, did the Founding Fathers mean to extend the “right” of free speech to anyone, regardless of his qualifications to exercise it? That is why we also need a system of background checks before allowing speech. Often, we find that speech abusers are serial offenders, who should never have been granted speech licenses in the first place.
Training is also vital. When you apply for a speech license, you should know from the outset that this will be a lengthy process as the background checks proceed, and that gives plenty of time for necessary preparation in handling your rights. Although jurisdictions may vary in their requirements, a minimum should be completing ten hours of sensitivity training. Meeting the victims and survivors of past speech abuse would offer a powerful lesson.
More recently, we have become aware that speech abuse is a public-health problem. Children with parents who abuse their speech rights will themselves grow up to become speech abusers, persistently denouncing authority. Doctors can play a wonderful role here, so that any medical checkup for whatever cause might involve routine questions about whether that family tolerates unwise or offensive speech at home. The more data we can gather, the better able we are to identify hot spots of public disaffection, so that licensing and background checks can be tightened appropriately. In the long term, medical records might help us understand the personality disorders and traumas that lead people to become so obsessive about their alleged rights.
Details will vary from place to place—and yes, some cities facing extraordinary pressures may choose to abolish speech rights altogether. But the basic principle is clear. The fact that a right exists, and is specified precisely in a written constitution, does not mean that it can or should be exercised by untrained and unqualified citizens. It must be channeled and rationed by the forces of authority, law, and order—if you like, by the forces of civilization.
Should we not hold that truth to be self-evident?
And don’t get me started on gun ownership.