The right to free speech can be horribly abused. And that is a good thing.
Elven Joe Swisher was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1957 following the Korean War.
Now in his late 70s, Swisher proudly wears the Purple Heart and the Silver Star as a constant reminder of his faithful service to the United States Military.
The only problem is that he did not earn those medals.
Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ruled that Swisher could indeed wear the service medals, despite the fact that he did not actually earn them.
The court deemed that his actions were a form of free speech. A ruling like this one is truly lamentable. To think that the constitution protects an individual’s right to knowingly misrepresent himself, especially with regard to a matter as dignified as service in the military, is repugnant.
But there should not be an effort to overturn the ruling. The simple (and equally disconcerting) fact is that Swisher’s actions are probably a valid form of free speech, however unsettling they may be.
But there is undeniably a line between constitutionally permissible actions and behavior that displays a woeful lack of common decency.
Just because Swisher’s decision to wear the medals he did not earn is legally protected, does not mean that he should wear them.
It merely suggests that he has the right to wear them. Yet, we would live in a very dangerous world if all of us did absolutely everything that is legally protected.
Consider the ruling that the Supreme Court handed down in 1977 in National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, a case that dealt with a neo-Nazi organization’s attempt to march through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood displaying swastikas.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that Frank Collin (the leader of the group) and his fellow organization members had the right to march in the neighborhood, despite the fact that approximately one sixth of the locality’s population was a Holocaust survivor or was related to one.
To be sure, the actions of Collin and his constituents are in no way equal in severity to Swisher’s choice to wear the service badges he did not earn; clearly the neo-Nazi group’s demonstration is far worse.
However, both the Skokie decision and Swisher’s case illustrate the idea that one’s own moral conscience should supersede all else.
There is a reason that most Americans do not wave Swastikas in the faces of Holocaust survivors even though such an action is legally permitted. It is because they know the difference between what is legal and what is right.
The constitution protects the actions of Collin and Swisher, but it does not say that those same actions are morally upstanding.
But perhaps that is the nature of freedom of speech in this country.
While it is undoubtedly alarming that we live in a nation where men can wear service medals they did not earn, and that we live in a nation where flaunting swastikas in the faces of Holocaust survivors is permitted, it is equally astonishing that such actions do not cause our nation to burst at the seams.
We hold freedom in higher regard than any other nation in the world, and it certainly comes with a steep price.
However, our own reckless abuse of freedom of speech is actually a manifestation of how strong of a nation we really are.
The liberty to do and say whatever one pleases, no matter how appalling those actions are, is truly a right that exists in only one nation on this Earth.