Rudnick > On Free Speech in a Democratic Society

| April 22, 2015

Democracy’s Highest Ideal Must Be Respected, Regardless of a Message or Manner of Protest


Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor

In the 2001 drama film starring Jim Carrey, “The Majestic,” we’re taken to California in the early-1950s. Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a young Hollywood screenwriter who learns he’s been blacklisted, accused of being a communist by a congressional committee investigating “subversives.” This sends Appleton into a tailspin. He gets drunk and crashes his car along a California highway. The plot then takes a turn, where stricken with amnesia he heads into the small town of Lawson, California. In a classic case of mistaken identity, the townsfolk mistake Peter for a missing “favorite son,” Luke, a young man long-presumed to be among the town’s many war casualties.

Peter then, having amnesia, assumes the role of Luke, and helps his “father” (that is, Luke’s father) run the town’s motion picture palace, “The Majestic.” By the film’s end, Peter realizes who he really is. And, having assumed the role of Luke—the high-minded, idealistic, forever lost war hero—he decides to return to Los Angeles, where the congressional committee has specially convened. There, likely channeling the patriotic spirit of Luke, he gives a rousing speech on what it means to truly live in a free and democratic society. The committee lets him go, fearing reproach for violating the very ideals—notably, liberty, freedom, and free thought—they purported to be upholding by “outing” anti-government subversives, people who don’t conform to their idea of what’s “right.”

“The Majestic” brings to bear the difficult questions inherent to life in a democratic society.

Presently, the Valdosta community has erupted into a firestorm over several African American men, presumably Valdosta State students, trampling and stomping on an American flag as a symbol of protest against racism and institutionalized inequality. What’s more, the protest was caught on camera, along with the detainment of Michelle Manhart, an Air Force veteran, by university police for refusing to return the flag after she seized it from the protestors. Manhart was not charged in the incident, but she was given a criminal trespass warning.

Flag desecration is among the most controversial of free speech issues. Burning or otherwise defiling, arguably, the single most pervasive symbol of our democracy is to most, including this author, both repugnant and untenable. However, as the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson (1989) notes, it is not illegal. Flag desecration, however unsettling, is constitutionally-protected, symbolic free speech.

I was taken aback not only at the flag protest, but also by the response on local social media. Observers pontificated that those who were trampling on the flag need to “get out of” or “just leave” the United States. In other words, if you wish to protest by defiling the flag, you have no place in their society.

While we can certainly feel disgust at the sensational nature of last Friday’s protest, we must also appreciate what free speech means in a democratic society. Free speech can be abrasive, controversial, and in your face. By design, free speech often provokes an emotional response. But as those who see flag desecration as objectionable have a right to voice their opinion in the public square, so do those very protestors who defiled our flag.

This is called democratic pluralism. Our democracy is a consortium of different and differing interests. We may not all agree with each other—I certainly don’t agree with flag burning—but that does not undermine one’s right to engage in civic discourse. Rather, that’s the very reason why robust civic discourse exists, to bridge differences and to better understand one another—even if you object to the form of protest or the message being broadcasted. Free speech is the most consequential right in a free society, for our democracy is grounded in both dialogue and debate. That’s how a pluralist society remedies its differences.

When I see emotional comments on the net in opposition to this sort of behavior, I understand why there are those who are angry. But I also can’t help but feel that civics educators throughout America have failed. They’ve failed to instill a notion of democratic pluralism into their students. They’ve failed to illustrate the double-edged sword that is free speech. And they’ve failed to impart onto their pupils what our flag really stands for.

Our flag stands for freedom. That is, freedom to speak one’s mind, freedom to engage in open dialogue, and freedom to protest and air one’s grievances—even if that means, paradoxically, defiling the very symbol of that freedom. If we are merely a nation of conformity of thought, unquestioned nationalism, and freedom for the few, then are we truly upholding what our flag stands for?

As Peter reminds us in “The Majestic,” dissent is often the greatest form of patriotism. If we cannot accept those who share different views than ourselves, if we cannot accept open and free access to the public square for all, then what does Old Glory really stand for? If free speech is not truly for all, our flag stands for nothing. It is a censor’s tool, a reproach to the high ideals of freedom it’s purported to uphold, and a rebuke to those who so blindly and thoughtlessly defend it.

rudnik-thumbnailNicholas A. Rudnik is currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University. Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop. Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector. He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik

Wisenbaker > Flag Fever on Campus
Letters > American Vet in Need of Help
Filed in: Editorials, Opinion

22 Comments on "Rudnick > On Free Speech in a Democratic Society"

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  1. Jan says:

    Yes Yes and Yes. We have to respect peoples rights even if we disagree. Thats free speech plain and simple.

    • VSU Alumna says:

      Speech is one thing – stomping our national flag is not free speech; it is an action of disrespect and destruction.

      Speech is one thing – vandalism is not free speech; it is an action of disrespect and destruction.

      Speech is one thing – looting stores and burning them is an action.

      Speech is one thing – burning cars, pooping on and turning over police cars is an action.

      Certain anti-American groups must be made to discern the differences between speech and action.

      • Jan says:

        But it is free speech. It’s one thing to say you don’t like flag desecration but it’s another to wrongly state it’s not free speech.

        Nick sums it up by saying “However, as the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson (1989) notes, it is not illegal. Flag desecration, however unsettling, is constitutionally-protected, symbolic free speech.”

  2. Nate in V-town says:

    I as a 10 year navy veteran and alum of VSU find the act deeply unsettling and would have acted if I saw the incident. However, I do get that freedom of speech means freedom to criticize the government without fear of persecution. I get that if you stomp on a north Korean flag in north Korea, that you will be killed by the government. If you stomp on a Cuban flag in Cuba, you will be jailed and likely tortured by the government. That is what makes us better than those places. However, must the act of criticizing the government here involve spitting in the faces of people who have served and given their bodies, minds, and even their lives. If you must criticize the government, then do so by voting out bad leaders, do so by not supporting corporations that send manufacturing jobs overseas. Do so by calling out bad policies like TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) on social media. Never heard of TPP, look it up and you will want to protest that and our government for supporting it. To wrap this up, our flag stands for everything great about this nation. To stomp on it, while legal and your right, is extremely tasteless and muddies up what ever message you are trying to send.

  3. David says:

    It is true that we have the right to be idiots. You can’t stop an idiot that isn’t breaking the law.

    But at what point does a responsible university administration decide that it is too much? That it is getting in the way of the mission of the school to effectively educate the students in a safe environment. I pay thousands and thousands of dollars to them to do so. So when VSU decides to accommodate these idiotic distractions like the Black Panthers, then my reaction is to go shopping for another university that doesn’t have these problems. VSU has grown leaps and bounds over recent years.

    I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one with this sentiment. If this is how campus life at VSU is, then I predict that we are going to see some real changes in the near future. I imagine VSU Alumni donations will drop dramatically. Enrollment will go down sharply and current students will enroll in other schools that don’t have these distractions.

    With this incident, and the looming selection of a new VSU President, the face and the culture of this school is at a crossroads.

    • Ronald says:

      David, you are without a doubt beyond an idiot for thinking Valdosta State University funds the Black Panther Group. You completely missed the point of free speech in this op-ed.

      Valdosta STATE University is public land. If you don’t believe they are allowed to protest on public land, that means you don’t support the 1st Amendment. That means you hate America! YOU’RE A COMMIE! YOU’RE A NO GOOD COMMIE! YOU HATE AMERICA!!!!!!

  4. Glenn says:

    While I do agree that everyone has the right to their opinion under the first amendment, I do NOT believe that includes the right to the desecration of the American Flag.

    Desecrating the American Flag, is Illegal and was and is protected by law. I know about the cases removing the federal law protecting the US Flag, BUT many states including Georgia have laws in place to Protect the flag, and as we know from the legalization of Marijuana by certain states, a STATE Law does supersede a federal law. (It is Illegal to possess and or use marijuana by federal law)

    Georgia has such a State law protecting the US Flag, [Ga. Code Ann. Sec. 50-3-8 and 50-3-9], as well as other states. The Federal ruling towards 1st Amendment right to burn and or desecrate the flag, DOES NOT apply, because it CAN NOT superseded a State Law. Many states have equated the Flag as the same as burning or desecrating religious objects, while others (Nevada) have made it Illegal to Speak “Evilly” about the flag.

    What the group was doing was Illegal and immoral, the Administration as well as VSU Police should have, stopped such actions.

    The protesting group should be cited under [Ga. Code Ann. Sec. 50-3-8 and 50-3-9] and the VSA Administration should also be fined for knowingly allowing an illegal action to take place on the VSU property and ordering VSU Police to allow such action, a problem when a corporation rules over a police department.

    While racist individuals want to make this about black and white, it is about Red, White and Blue. A symbol of American heritage including religious rights, women’s rights, the abolishment of slavery, and many other issues. People have given their lives throughout history to protect that flag and what it stands for. When a person desecrates the USA Flag they are desecrating all those whom fought and dies for that flag, enabling citizens to have the rights they have.

    Basically make or 1st amendment protest, keep them legal and peaceful, but if you violate the American Flag in Georgia you should be stopped and cited under [Ga. Code Ann. Sec. 50-3-8 and 50-3-9] and don’t be surprised when veterans and others step forward acerting their 1st amendment rights and beliefs.

    • Kathleen says:

      Actually you are wrong sir. There is something called the Supremacy Clause in the United States Constitution which states “Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution is commonly referred to as the Supremacy Clause. It establishes that the federal constitution, and federal law generally, take precedence over state laws, and even state constitutions.”. So while Georgia law may deem desecrating the flag as illegal, since it is considered an act of the First Amendment, Georgia laws are superseded by the Federal Law using the Supremacy Clause. It is as tasteless act, and one I do not agree with, but all the same it is a protected form of speech. Something I have learned in my legal classes.

      • Glenn says:

        Kathleen –

        States recently have passed laws that contradict or ignore federal laws.

        These so-called nullification ruling efforts, the states have acted because they say the federal laws are unconstitutional or they disagree with the laws.

        Many states Such as Nevada and Alabama actually have listed such nullification in respect to the desecration of the American Flag and religious object, and many more have added nullification as toward Marijuana and sales of goods.

        While I can not find such a nullification in Georgia, I have found cases as recent as 2011 upholding and fining individuals for such act against [Ga. Code Ann. Sec. 50-3-8 and 50-3-9].

        So you maybe right, but the law is on the books and I can only find it has been upheld in Georgia (Fulton and Cobb Counties) of 2011. It also seems that many of these nullification rulings.

        Maybe such a nullification or new law should be presented to in a Vote to the people?

        As one legal analyst stated that desecration is desecration, that if it is okay to desecrate the Flag, then when people desecrate a cemetery or place of worship it could then be argued it is there 1st amendment right.

        All I can say is its wrong on so many levels.

        • Pancho Rambeaux says:

          Glen, you are grasping at straws the Supreme Court judgements. You mention marijuana and that may be true to some extent but pot retailers have to deal exclusively in cash since they cannot process their proceeds through banks. If they did they would be in violation of federal law. As far as your desecration of cemeteries is concerned that is a ridiculous comparison, you are talking about vandalism, not protest. One reason that Manhart was arrested is that she took the property, the flag, of the protesters. She had no right to do that.

  5. Ty says:

    NICK You’re the idiot youre not that smart and a scumbag like McKinney like those black nationalists like Manhart your all just scumbags.

  6. Pancho Rambeaux says:

    As usual the debate becomes filled with name calling when you can’t defend your side of the argument, Ty. Glenn just reinforces what Rudnick states in his editorial, there has been a failure on the part of civics teachers to clearly teach the idea of federalism and the role of the Constitution in the law. The case he cites Texas v. Johnson is specifically about a state, Texas, trying to prosecute someone under its law for burning a flag. The court found it an acceptable form of freedom of speech. Furthermore, there are those who are saying it is inciting violence or is “fighting words” to do this while stating their grievances. Again, the court denied this as a reason for restricting the First Amendment rights of the protester. Rudnick fails to mention a previous case where the free speech rights of an individual; Hayden Barnes was taken from him by then VSU President Zaccari. Barnes filed suit in Federal Court and won a substantial settlement against Zaccari, the Board of Regents and VSU. This had to figure into the actions of the University president when he failed to act on Friday in order to limit the protest.

    That said, Dr. William McKinney should be relieved of duty as President of Valdosta state immediately. While the court upheld the right for this type of protest they did give government the ability to limit the protest if the speech became inciting or potentially dangerous. From all indications from passersby this type of speech occurred during the protest. The confrontation between the Air Force veteran and the protesters should have never occurred. McKinney should have stationed police at the protest, he should have had staff monitoring the situation and given clear instructions to intercede into any potential conflicts. For the woman to be able to walk up to the protesters and take the flag shows a failure of this simple protocol. The subsequent findings of a weapon in the belongings of one of the protesters further illustrates the potential for a catastrophic incident to occur and McKinney is ultimately responsible for this failure.

    This should be the final straw in a long list of missteps during McKinney’s administration. He wasted tens of thousands of dollars for his “coronation ceremonies” as the new president. His horrible handling of the death of Jasmine Benjamin in VSU dorm, where her parents found out about the death through social media. The poor reaction and lack of policy adjustments in reaction to that incident may have led to the current crisis. Next, his inability to see the potential conflict of interest in allowing a blatant political fundraiser to be held on campus with Dr. Ben Carson, where the student body was severely restricted from attendance as well. Not to mention the firing of staff because of supposed budget cuts, then creating new high paying positions such as the Chief of Staff. Finally, that Chief of Staff was found drunk on campus by police, most likely leading to his resignation that was set for July 1st.

    Waiting until July 1st is too long. McKinney must go, he is an incapable manager and a discredited “leader” of this University. The Board of Regents must act now, and act decisively.

  7. Dennis says:

    I find it very disturbing that “We” as a nation of people have become so politically divided that we cannot even agree on the respect of our nations flag. The question is simple in my mind; either it was disrespectful or it wasn’t.

    For me it was extremely disrespectful, not only to the nation but also to the millions of people that believe in what it stands for. Did they have the “right” to do it? According to the Supreme Court of the U.S.; yes they had that right. According to all that is good and moral in America; no they did not. Just because a person can do something, doesn’t mean they should. It’s all about common decency and respect for others.

    I would like to talk about some things for you, Mr. Rudnik, to ponder on. First and foremost, we do not live in a Democracy; we live in a Republic. We have a Constitution of the United States as well as a Constitution for each state. We do not live according to a common vote. We have laws that are created, amended and abolished by the legislative branch. We have an Executive branch to execute and enforce those laws. And we have a Judicial branch to interpret these laws and their respective Constitutions.

    Secondly, this is not about anyone’s right to protest. If it were, we would all recognize that what Mrs. Manhart did was to protest against people that were vandalizing a symbol that she holds dear to her heart. Her protest was to pick up the flag and dispose of it properly … that was her cause.

    To imply that Mrs. Manhart was wrong because the protestors had the right to protest, is in effect denying her the right to protest. While she has not declared her actions to be a protest, in all reality that’s exactly what it was.

    Let’s look at both protests shall we?

    One protest was full of hate speech, racial slurs, and terroristic threats. We also need to consider the fact that Eric Sheppard felt the need to have a firearm. Only two reasons to have a gun come to my mind; either he intended to use it at some point, or he believed that he needed it for self-defense. Considering the terroristic threats that he made during his protest, I would be inclined to believe that he is indeed what he claimed to be, a terrorist. If he felt the need for protection, it was because he knew that he was very possibly going to incite someone to violence. Regardless of ones conclusion, this action in and of its self shows that this was not meant to be a “peaceful protest”.

    Mrs. Manhart’s protest was peaceful. She started out by going through the proper channels and contacting school officials. In the VSU police report it clearly states that the officers confronted the protestors and told them to put the flags up because they didn’t have authorization to be holding their protest. The protest continued until Mrs. Manhart arrived at the school. Upon arriving, she grabbed the flag, rolled it up and started to leave with it to properly destroy it. No one claimed the flag to be their property. It was lying on the ground dirty and tattered as if it was a piece of thrown out garbage. The reason for her arrest according to a VSU police officer was that she was being arrested for not following an order from a fellow police officer, According to the VSU police report she was restrained because she was combative. Video shows this to be inaccurate. The protest continued the following day.

    I find it interesting that even though the protesters had disregarded a police order that they were allowed to continue with out any recourse. Mrs. Manhart certainly did not enjoy this same freedom.

    As I mentioned earlier, this is not about a person’s right to protest or to mutilate the flag nor is it about slavery or equality; it’s about a war of ideology that is raging in our country. It’s a war of morals verses one of personal freedoms. We are no longer a nation of people; we are a bunch of individual people that live in the same nation. The mindset is becoming more about the individual and less about the nation all the time. Our Great Nation is dying right before our eyes under the guise of personal freedom. A land of “personal freedom” is a land with out law … which is chaotic at best.

    I can agree with you on one thing Mr. Rudnik; our schools can and should do a better job of teaching; as your continued insistence of our “democracy” in your article clearly demonstrates. On a better note, I was delighted to read in the credits that you are furthering your education in American political science. Hopefully, during your studies, you will learn the difference between a Democracy and a Republic.

    I find it odd that you would defend a person’s right to protest and voice their beliefs in a public square, yet admonish those for doing the same thing via public media in the next breath. Their comments on these forums are, after all, their protest. I have read many comments posted in public media and I have read many articles and watched several videos concerning the protest. Granted, some remarks on public media have been less than civil, however the comments and threats made by Eric Sheppard were by far worse. We’re talking about annihilating an entire race of people verses people responding to an individual that was making threats directed at them. People do have a tendency to respond when provoked. Rather than reacting to the responses that Eric Sheppard provoked, shouldn’t we be focused on why these people are responding in the first place?

    Your entire article is what’s wrong with our nation today. It’s very clear that you believe that these armed militants had every right to protest and to say and do what ever they wanted to. However, shame on those that dared speak out in rebuttal … according to your implications, it’s just shocking and wrong! Where’s the freedom in that Mr. Rudnik?

    Personally, I salute Mrs. Manhart for her actions and commend her on her patriotism. Her bold action to protect the flag speaks volumes about her love and dedication to this country. One need not stop there to see her commitment to this country; she served in the military for many years. Her husband is serving over seas right now, which is a continued sacrifice on her part.

    As a 50 year old American, it’s not hard for me to determine which side I will stand on. I will stand with Mrs. Manhart, freedom, common sense and decency.

    May Old Glory continue to wave proudly to represent the Republic for which it stands!

  8. Leslie says:

    I think I will protest with my wallet. I will no longer support VSU. When I give money to the university for scholarships, I do not want young men and women that act in this fashion to get a cent of my money. Oh ya, I can do what I want with my money. I served 20 years in the military and respect the symbols of my country. Remember that that they didn’t have the conviction to even give their names to the police officers or state why they were protesting at the time. Why were they not arrested for having a illegal protest? I graduated from Valdosta many years ago and received a good education that resulted in me getting a great job, but from what I have read about this situation it is pitiful and the students of Valdosta should stand up against these so called “protesters” use of their nation’s flag.

    • VSU Alumna says:

      The VSU Alumni office received over 3,000 calls asking to be removed from the donations list.

  9. Donna says:

    I was with you all the way up until the moment you blamed educators. You state that the failure to teach pluralism is due to poor teaching. Why is it that everyone is so quick to blame the police and the teachers? When is the last time you were in a classroom? How do you know what we’re teaching? I am a third grade Social Studies teacher and I make it a point to explain to my students each and every year what our flag means and why we must honor it. Our military deserves our appreciation and our respect. This is a lesson that even the very young need to understand. I also teach about the differences between rights and responsibilities. All of these are required Georgia state standards that must be taught. So, if I’m responsible for teaching these standards then how is my fault? Everyone is so quick to toss the blame on teachers. What about the responsibility of society? When are parents going to be held responsible for what their children learn? Training the next generation depends on all of us. Most educators feel like teaching is a calling. If that’s the case, then why are we always accused of not doing our very best? If your track record was being printed in the newspaper wouldn’t you be doing your best? We feel the same way. Stop pointing fingers and make sure you’re doing your part.

  10. jim says:

    1st amendment, 1st amendment, and 1st amendment. I agree with the writer, the US Constitution comes first and foremost. The flag is only a symbol, therefore the Constitution is the substance. I’m sure all people who went to grade school learned this first. Dialogue is always better then violence.
    Peace out to all

  11. Capitalism says:

    Leslie says, fight money with money. She talks like our two political parties and unions. The flag and nation and race disrespect is about greed (money). Why do so many not realize that the poor are just as greedy as the rich. Nobody is exempt.

    From Leslie we hear another once again suggest using the power of money. Suggesting we fight money with money.

    Politicians on both sides use it, and threaten to use it, against the other party. Politicians call it the “power of the purse”.

    Unions use the power of money. When unions want something, they stay home from work. Soon getting it. Because they stop the money. So successful, now they just threaten to stay home from work and get what they want.

    HEY! Guess who really has the power of the purse? Not politicians or unions! We do. But we fail to use it like politicians use it against the other party to get what they want. Fail to use it like unions use do to get what they want.

    80% have said too long they are fed up with government (politicians). Past time to peacefully unite and peacefully occupy our house to take back our White House. We stop the money from flowing. Our incomes and spending, stopping profits and sales tax. We stop income taxes. We stop profits. We stop union dues. Yes, we have the power of the purse, NOT politicians.

    Do you fear they will put us in jail? Heck no. Then the money they love more than us will never start flowing again. They will want to get the money flowing again quickly, even if on our terms. Once done, we have the threat to do it again. Obviously we are no threat as both parties fearlessly and arrogantly stay the course, harming all Americans, poorest to richest.

    This war in the US on the rich, how stupid at an elementary level is that? Real stupid to fight a natural law that fortune will be divided unequally. Each species has a bit. And among each species, fortune is further divided. They fight to gain or hold fortune.

    Humans are animals. We cannot afford things we see others have or advertised, but will NOT do what it takes to obtain those things legally by getting a better education and more income and budgeting and acquiring those things legally. Instead, we steal and rob and blame. Fight like animals. Then blame it on the rich that provide jobs and the things way too many among us choose to steal.

    The 80% are wimps to keep enabling the two political parties with money on their terms. Using our money to divide us. Using our financial place in society as a political football. The terms laid out by politicians and their cronies is the problem, not the division in wealth. There will always be a division in wealth, because their simply must be. It is a natural thing.

  12. Chris says:

    Let me get this straight, you freedom loving flag wavers think the first amendment should be modified so people do not desecrate a flag, but a lot of you(if not all) will get worked up when democrats go after the second amendment. Do you guys not see the irony in that? You do NOT support freedom. Do you really think a group of people who declared independence against Britain, wanted its citizens forced into respecting their country?

    In the name of protecting the flag from desecration you are calling for the desecration of the very thing the flag stands for, which is freedom. This is ridiculous.

  13. Phil says:

    Freedom of speech is a privilege. Living in this country is a privilege. Gun ownership is a privilege. The flag is a symbol of this country, it’s freedoms, rights and privileges. The 2nd amendment is the citizens guarantee of keeping all the other rights, freedoms and privileges. It would be effortless of a power be it small, large or even our own government to over power an unarmed populace. Do you think if ISIS would ever try to invade Echols County ? Not and live to tell about it.