Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Teasing...Freedom of Expression or Crime?"

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” ― Salman Rushdie 

As a blogger and chronicler of relevant social and political issues, perhaps no greater bane to my endeavor exists than censorship. Can’t stand it. Won’t tolerate it.
Since being online, I was forced to censor only a single response to my postings (based on the fact the link to the commenter’s own blog was deemed too graphic for those wishing to inquire about his own personal views on the issue of gay marriage). Other than that, I would vigorously defend anyone’s right to speak their mind, or say what they feel…no matter how distasteful, painful (to some), or unjustified it might be.
On that point, a rather disturbing story came across my desk from earlier this week regarding one of those incidents of distasteful expression. What I found disturbing was not the inherently cruel the message being conveyed by expresser, but the hundreds of comments and responses the man’s actions had incurred from the public supporting actions taken against what this individual had done…or rather expressed by way of his actions.
This past Tuesday, an Ohio judge sentenced 43-year-old William Bailey to a month in jail. His offense? Bailey was convicted of both a first-degree misdemeanor charge of aggravated menacing, a subsequent charge of disorderly conduct, and ordered to pay $400 in court costs and fines stemming from his “teasing and taunting a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy.” As with many other instances of stand-out cruelty, a video was taken of Bailey’s actions and posted online…where it went viral in a few short days.
This video and its popularity was part of the basis of the disabled child’s family filing a complaint with the city attorney’s office seeking legal actions against Bailey.

To put the entire incident in context, it becomes necessary to understand the details of what happened leading up to this. According to published reports:

The taunting occurred on Sept. 26, when Tricia Knight and her mother-in-law were waiting for her children's bus to return from school. Knight's three children, including 10-year-old Hope, attend Walker Elementary with Bailey's 9-year-old son, Joseph.
What happened next was caught on an iPod camera by Knight's mother-in-law, Marie Prince.
William Bailey "was dragging his leg and patting his arm across his chest to pick his son Joseph up," said Knight. "I asked him to please stop doing this. 'My daughter can see you.' He then told his son to walk like the R-word."
The next day Knight posted the video on her Facebook page while Prince uploaded the video they called "Bus Stop Ignorance" to YouTube. Within days, the video went viral. The Knight family has lived next door to the Baileys for the past two years, and the incident at the bus stop, according to Knight, is the culmination of rising tensions and intimidation against her kids" ("Ohio Man Sentenced to One Month After Teasing Disabled Girl").

Yes, Bailey’s actions could easily be interpreted by most as the questionable actions of an ***hole. But being compared to an otherwise nasty body part has not been a crime in this country for a long time. As a by-product of our First Amendment right of Free Speech, people should have every the right to express themselves in any way they so desire…as long as it doesn’t create a clear and immediate danger to public safety or social order (e.g., yelling fire in a crowded theater, or attempting to verbally incite a riot). With all due respect to the Knight family, to curtail the expression of Bailey’s thoughts and ideas is to potentially curtail their own.
The authorities in Ohio overstepped their legal bounds by caving into social pressure in charging Bailey with a crime for expressing his otherwise gutter level of thinking. But perhaps issuing a restraining order , community service, or some other colorful form of penalty would have been a more appropriate course of action for Bailey expressing his stupidity. Simply put, it sets a very bad precedent to send someone to jail for this showing their ignorance in a relatively harmless (note, I said “relatively harmless;” please put down your rocks). If we sentenced everyone to jail who offended us, we would literally have to build add-ons to the coastal borders of our country to house them.
Let’s face it…bullying is an occurrence that happens every day of the week, and rarely does it result in criminal persecution, unless it results in actual (as opposed to perceived) criminal acts.
As an African-American, being called the “N-word” by some intellectual and cultural Neanderthal doesn’t hurt me in the slightest (trust me, I’ve been called worse). And I wouldn’t condone anyone who dares to do it to be sent to jail as a consequence. As thoughtless and heartless as people can be sometimes, the unfettered freedom and exchange of ideas—both pleasant and odious—is what made this country a world leader. And we cannot and should not allow our sensitivities to weaken our right to say (or express) what is on our mind, in our hearts, or how we feel.
Individuals do not have a right to employ the heckler’s veto against any level of speech. However, we do have the right to build up out tolerance to ignorance and questionable expression for the greater good of exchanging ideas.
Any time we put limitations on our right to express ourselves—regardless of content of the message—we render meaningless every life that was sacrificed for the same right. How we to know what is right, and what is wrong if we are prevented from ever being allowed to express it?
In understanding and respecting the rights of others to express themselves, we can take a lesson from the late child author Dr. Seuss:
"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."