The Other Side of Free Speech

Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.

~ Henry Louis Gates Jr ~

I absolutely hate finding myself in agreement with anything one might find on Fox News, but that’s the situation in which I find myself with respect to opera singer Anna Netrebko’s withdrawal from future engagements at the Metropolitan Opera. The Met said it would not engage artists who support Putin; Netrebko refused to repudiate her support of the subhuman scum Russian dictator, so the Met said there was “no way forward” to permit Netrebko’s performances. I doubt there are many people who find Putin more offensive than I. And I think Netrebko’s support of Putin is, to put it mildly, offensive and stupid. But Fox News made a valid point in saying in an opinion piece about the Met’s refusal to permit her to perform:

It is perfectly bizarre for the Met to stand against tyranny by attacking free speech, the very right that combats tyranny in all forms. This is not just the day that the music died for Netrebko, it is the day that free speech died at the Met.

Unfortunately, I did not find any similar denunciations of The Met’s decision by any other news media; I hope that is because I did not look hard enough. If the media does not take a firm stand on this sort of censorship (and it is censorship, albeit by proxy), I am afraid our democracy is on the ropes.

This issue brings to mind several situations that have made the news in recent months in which various colleges and universities have cancelled speeches and performances which people on my side of the political spectrum found objectionable. I despise right-wing mouthpieces and find their hate-laced diatribes offensive and based largely on deliberate manipulations of circumstances and facts. But I believe, deeply, that one of the core elements of democracy is free speech. Taking actions to deny people the right to spew offensive rhetoric (or even the right to believe in offensive ideas or support offensive people) may give momentary relief from their offensive language and ideas, but it sets the stage for retributive actions. Not only that, it is simply wrong. I am a firm believer in the concept said to have originated with French philosopher Voltaire, as expressed by author S.G. Tallentyre: “I wholly disapprove of what you say—and will defend to the death your right to say it.” While there are limits to what is permissible, those limits should be few and only permissible when absolutely necessary as life-or-death protection. As I said, I hate agreeing with Fox News. But I would not silence it, even when it tries to silence or mock or invalidate the credibility of people who agree with me. I might argue forcefully against someone whose point of view is diametrically opposed to mine, but I would not cut out their tongue.


During the past several weeks, I have snatched a few moments to read some provocative things I’ve come across in other people’s blogs in months and years past. These are blogs that, like mine, seem to have very small audiences; it’s extremely rare to see a comment in response to a published piece. On those rare occasions when I have taken the time to offer comments on those provocative pieces, the author almost invariably responds to my comments, expressing appreciation. But in other blogs, the ones with huge followings and dozens or  hundreds of comments, the author rarely responds to comments; at least not in the comment section of the blog. I wonder whether the volume of comments is so high that the writer might feel responding to them would be an almost impossible task. But I would think the fact that followers think enough of what the blogger wrote to comment on it would merit a response. Perhaps, though, the writer doesn’t even know the comments are there. Perhaps he doesn’t go back to see if there are comments. Early one, I suspect the settings were adjusted to notify the writer of every comment. For big, popular blogs, that might create such volume of email that the writer simply could not cope. Maybe that’s why my comments on those big, popular blogs never seem to get replies; at least not from the writer. This is on my mind this morning because, a few weeks ago, I commented on a blog and never got a response. Oh, well. It is what it is. Zen, baby.


Yesterday’s plan—to continue painting the new house—was adjusted into a related endeavor, but one that did not involve inhaling a huge volume of dust still hanging in the air from tile cutting and installation. Instead of continuing to transform the interior of the house, work shifted to the very warm outdoors, where badly mangled crepe myrtles and freeze-damaged azaleas needed attention. Several crepe myrtles on the property are, in my estimation, dead. A few more have been subjected to such severe pruning (“crepe murder,” some call it) that their survival is in question. Still, the long, unruly stalks that previous heavy pruning encouraged needed trimming. So, that’s what happened. And a few related items outdoors, including untangling and unfurling a very heavy 100-foot-plus hose. The previous owners—who I now consider some of the most unclean, uncaring, inconsiderate, and generally low-life people I’ve ever encountered—apparently saw fit to stop looking after the yard a year or three ago. And they left the tools of their abuse and abandonment behind. But I’m taking it as it comes. Zen, baby. Their abuses will make it possible for minor efforts on our part to result in what will seem a magical transformation. I keep telling myself that.


The last three nights allowed us to add three movies to our “have watched” list: Unthinkable, Wild Oats, and The Weekend Away. Each of the three films has mild entertainment value; Wild Oats is moderately funny and has a sense of “feel good” quality to it. While I would not heartily recommend any of the three, unless watching one of them was an alternative to scrubbing toilets, they are not what I’d call bad. Just not the sort of films that have the potential for changing one’s attitudes about life. That is, none of them require the viewer to think; only to watch and to listen with half an ear.  I am in the mood for a riveting series; something that grabs me from the beginning and keeps me wanting more. I say I’m in the mood, but maybe not: maybe I want to be in the mood to watch something gripping, but I’m not there at the moment. It’s hard to articulate the odd level of ambivalence dancing in my brain. I suppose painting a house in slow motion and watching the paint dry, while the floors of the house seem locked in a perpetual unfinished state, will do that to a person.


It might surprise you to know you’ve been on my mind lately. If I were to include your name in my blog every time I thought about you, you might be flabbergasted. You might aske, “Why are you thinking about me?” It’s hard to say. But I think a lot about a lot of people. Some, though, more than others. And  you are among those I think about quite often. Relatively speaking, of course. It’s not enough to put me in the category of “stalker,” but it’s pretty frequent. You might think I’m writing this with someone else in mind. No, it’s you. And you. And you, too. Here are some clues as to who you are. You have cereal with bananas (and sometimes blueberries) most mornings and every word that comes out of your mouth amazes me ;-). You just moved into another house, after a separation. You walk a lot…a LOT. Your dogs are incredibly cute…and they know it. You just bought a beast of a truck…just like one you had years ago. You attended my wedding and have been my friend for many years. You share my birthday. You and your partner drove a Jeep on your last visit to see me. You and I share an ability to cry at the drop of a hat and an enjoyment of working with clay. You are one of the most energetic and generous people I’ve ever known and the sparkles in your hair…well they are lovely. You taught me to recite a poem in German. You share my fascination with co-housing, among other interests. You gave me a “snake” plant (AKA mother-in-law’s tongue) and taught me to shoot a pistol. You’re considering new flooring for your condo and we don’t talk with one another enough. You teach school, yet found the time to tend to someone who desperately needed you. You (both of you) periodically send me surprise “goodies” and encourage me to come visit. You share your generosity, your knowledge about and love of Galveston, and your sense of humor with me.  I could go on and on. But my fingers are beginning to tell me to stop. I am sure several of the people I am thinking about do not read this blog. And I suspect I failed to include here several people I think about regularly. That’s the danger of trying; you’re bound to leave off the list someone who’s incredibly important. I hope it suffices to say you are important to me and I value having you in my life. Whoever you are, thank you.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Other Side of Free Speech

  1. Warren, thanks for sending the link. I downloaded it, but haven’t yet read it; 45 pages is enough to keep me riveted to a legal text for days! 😉 A quick skim suggests a good deal of the article deals with identifying what constitutes speech in the context of the Free Speech Clause, which is definitely of interest to me. However, in relation to my post, and as I suggested in my reply to David, I’m more interested in the broader freedom of speech, rather than its Constitutional protections. In my view, our principles relating to the freedom of speech go beyond the limitations of the law, plunging deeply into our core principles as a freedom-loving people. In my opinion, if we love freedom and are willing to send our youth to fight and die for it, we ought to clutch it as closely as we possibly can to our hearts.

  2. David, I do not suggest she is on our side; frankly, based on her support of Putin, I would not want her on our side. You’ll note that I did not make any mention of the First Amendment. That is because my belief in free speech is not predicated on the First Amendment, nor on freedom as limited to Americans. Voltaire, who I referenced in my comments, was French. In my view, if the USA wants to be a beacon of democracy to the world (which I hope and believe we want to be), we should advocate for freedom and reward democracy even when it does not suit us. I stick with my position. An opera singer’s social or political deviance should not give us license to selectively enforce our principles.

  3. davidlegan says:

    Not to harsh your mellow, there good buddy, but I gotta call this one. ANYONE who supports Putin in this thing…in any way…with words or money or influence or karma is ON THE WRONG SIDE. I get what you are saying. However, the First Amendment is an American right. Ble for by Americans. IF she is on his side, she ain’t on ours.

  4. warrens1or2 says:

    R. George Wright What Counts as “Speech” in the First Place?: Determining the Scope of the Free Speech
    Clause, 37 Pepp. L. Rev. Iss. 4 (2010)
    Available at:

I wish you would tell me what you think about this post...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.