Why Symbolic Speech Should Be Protected
1. The measure of a great society is the ability of its citizens to tolerate the viewpoints of those with whom they disagree. As Voltaire once said, “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Columbia). This right to express one's opinion can be characterized as “freedom of speech.” The concept of “freedom of speech” is a Constitutional right in the United States, guaranteed under the First Amendment to the Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (U.S. Constitution).
Because it is a Constitutional right, the concept of freedom of speech is hardly ever questioned. “On its most basic level [freedom of speech] means you can express an opinion without fear of censorship by the government, even if that opinion is an unpopular one” (Landmark Cases). However, the actions of Americans that are included under “free speech,” are often questioned. Many people support the theory of “free speech,” but may oppose particular practices of free speech that personally offend them. This hypocrisy is illustrated by the case of Neo-Nazis whose right to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1979 was protested by many, but ultimately successfully defended by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The residents of this predominantly Jewish town which contained many Holocaust survivors were offended by the presence of the Neo-Nazis. However, then ACLU Executive Director Aryeh Neier, whose relatives died in Hitler's concentration camps during World War II, commented, “Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened” (American Civil Liberties Union).
2. Very little expression is “mere” speech. Under the broad category of free speech is the concept of “symbolic speech.”
“Expression may be symbolic, as well as verbal. Symbolic speech is conduct that expresses an idea. Although speech is commonly thought of as verbal expression, we are all aware of nonverbal communication. Sit-ins, flag waving, demonstrations, and wearing…protest buttons are examples of symbolic speech. While most forms of conduct could be said to express ideas in some way, only some conduct is protected as symbolic speech. In analyzing such cases, the courts ask whether the speaker intended to convey a particular message, and whether it is likely that the message was understood by those who viewed it. In order to convince a court that symbolic conduct should be punished and not protected as speech, the government must show it has an important reason. However, the reason cannot be that...