…And Nothing But the Truth May/June 2022

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Ramesh Nyberg

Freedom of Speech Is a Problem?

Recently, my wife and I went to see an Indian comedian performing in West Palm Beach. He was really funny, but what really grabbed me about his performance was the first thing he said when he got on stage.        

“I’m very happy to be here – and I mean I’m happy to be here in the United States, where I can speak freely.”

He went on to explain that, as a vocal critic of many Indian policies, he has been threatened with arrest by government officials. Coming back from one of his performances in New York, he fully expected to be arrested when he arrived at the airport in India. The local police there, though, decided that he had done nothing wrong and they never showed up with the cuffs. India is a strange and, often, hypocritical mixture of religion, politics and caste discrimination. It also ends up with leaders who wield just a bit too much power. They don’t have the three branch system of government we enjoy, nor do they seem to value their constitution which is closely styled after ours. 

But, this column isn’t about India – it’s more about the idea of freedom, the thing which we as Americans cherish, but sometimes take for granted. For all of our failings and strife, for all the division we experience on our own soil here these days, this is a great country and I believe it always will be. In fact, it is through those failings and that strife that we have managed to pull together and emerge stronger. We have some pretty serious challenges facing us at the moment and, when I look at the faces of my high school students, I’m keenly aware that they will be carrying the torch very soon. I won’t be around when they are in their 40s and 50s, doing their best work. I stress to them how much sacrifice has been made for them to be able to express their views without fear – and yet they are hesitant. They are often just silent. Various forces and movements in our society over the past couple of decades have made them fearful of their most powerful weapon: the use of language. They are content to retreat into the cocoon of their cell phones rather than engage in any kind of meaningful discourse. My fear is that some of them might never learn how to do so.

If this column sounds like a “part II” to the one from the last issue, I apologize. I feel like we are at a critical time in our history. I’m also at ground zero with your future partners in law enforcement, your future employees – or employers – and I don’t take a moment in that classroom for granted. With all of the controversies swirling around in the public forum, we should never forget to focus on the freedom part of it all. What I mean is that we must keep our society functioning with those original promises of justice at the center. History has shown that, when that happens, freedom eventually prevails. If we take our eye off the ball, however, bad things can happen. We can succumb to movements which want us to talk a certain way and to ideals which demand social censorship in even normal conversation. I shudder when I think of it, but there are people who really want certain types of speech to be unlawful. I don’t care if you are extreme right, extreme left or anywhere in between, none of us can ever let this happen.  

If we need to be reminded how precious our freedom is, we need only to look to Europe where the Ukrainian people who have been working towards a free and democratic environment for their people are suddenly and viciously bombarded by a Russian military. As bad as I feel for them, I also pity the Russian people who cannot even oppose the war in a peaceful way without being arrested. From where I sit and type this article, there is an island not 120 miles away which has been a communist state for the last 62 years. People from Cuba still flee that oppressive regime to find the sweetness of freedom here in South Florida.    

Our American journey has been far from perfect. Just a few years after establishing the Bill of Rights, our young country – in response to the conflict between Britain and France – passed the Alien and Sedition Act which was the exact likeness of what is happening in Russia. It became illegal to voice an opinion which was critical of our government. Later, wiser heads saw the contradiction and repealed it. There are many other instances in our country’s adolescence when our desires and fears caused us to forget about the principles the Founding Fathers cobbled together to start the new republic. Time and time again in the history of our justice system, the Fourteenth Amendment has come galloping onto the field to save the day. Time after time, arguments over law, fairness and justice have been resolved by relying on the Constitution and entrusting that interpretation to nine people we hope will “do the right thing.” The problem is, has been, and always will be that the “right thing” is in the eye of the beholder.

An old Yiddish story goes: Members of a congregation were arguing over the proper demeanor during a certain prayer: Did one stand or sit to recite the prayer? They were bitterly divided and so they sought the advice of an elder rabbi in the village.

“Rabbi,” they asked, “what’s the proper tradition – do we stand for this prayer?”        

“No, that’s not the tradition,” he answered.       

“So, we stand then! Right?”         

He shook his gray head. “No. That’s not the tradition either.”

“Then, sir, what is it? Please tell us! We are at each other’s throats, arguing and fighting angrily!”         

“AH!” the rabbi said, his finger in air. “That’s the tradition!”    

I submit that the same can be true of our legacy. It’s safe to say that because of our freedoms, we will never be in a state of perfection or total agreement. It is out of conflict and disagreement that we have chiseled our best work.   

I did an exercise with my criminal justice students. I told them that out of the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments, they had to lose one. Which would it be? Almost all said the Sixth and a few said the Fourth and Fifth. I changed it up then: Now, you can only keep one. Every single student said they would keep the First Amendment, arguably the icon of freedom. To say that was encouraging is a huge understatement. These kids have come to learn that it’s our laws, not our lack of laws which is the bedrock of our liberty. After all of my concerns I have about my students, this was my classroom version of seeing Old Glory still waving over Fort McHenry.  

It’s not the “Star Spangled Banner”which best expresses our love of freedom. It’s in one of the lines of “America the Beautiful”:        

“Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.”

I’m going to India in June for vacation. I have to watch what I say while I’m out in public. Stay tuned for a full report on that.

Ramesh Nyberg retired from law enforcement in November 2006 after 27 years of police work. He lives in Miami and teaches criminal justice at a local high school. He also teaches regional law enforcement courses through Training Force, USA. He enjoys getting feedback from readers and can be reached at ramesh.nyberg@gmail.com. Also, Ram has recently announced his newly published book, The Ten Must-Haves to Be a Great Detective, available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle eBook. You can find it by visiting https://tinyurl.com/hwc2xajm