“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” ~First Amendment

What troubles America is not the proverbial issue de jour. As much as it titillates public discourse, it possesses little power to undermine the American ethos. But civic ignorance is a different matter.

Because America is held to together by the elasticity of a radical idea promoting liberty and equality, the guardrails for sustaining that belief are encompassed in the Constitution.

Having a cable television talk show does not necessarily equate to understanding the Constitution, which brings me to the host of HBO’s Real Time, Bill Maher. Maher recently defended Fox News broadcaster Laura Ingraham, under the guise of protecting free speech.

Since the Parkland mass shooting, a number of corporate sponsors have pulled their support from Ingraham’s primetime cable talk show because she was perceived as taunting, via social media, one of the survivors, David Hogg.

In response, Hogg encouraged his plethora of Twitter followers to write the advertisers of Ingraham’s show, demanding they their pull ads. More than a dozen corporations withdrew their advertisement including Office Depot, Gerber, Hulu, Honda, and Johnson and Johnson.

Though Maher made clear he didn’t support Ingraham’s overall agenda, he believed there was a larger constitutional concern at stake.

“Maybe you shouldn’t say that about a 17-year-old, but again, he is in the arena. And then he calls for a boycott of her sponsors. Now, really, is that American?” Maher asked. Adding, “Effectively, it is the modern way of cutting off free speech,” Maher said.

Yes, it is American; and no, it is not a modern way of cutting off free speech.

Hogg may very well be in the arena of public discourse, but fortunately for him and America at-large, he is not in the domain of Maher’s subjective constitutional understanding.

Maher successfully demonstrated there is no correlation between touting the First Amendment with vigor and being accurate. But he is hardly an outlier when it comes to civic ignorance.

A 2015 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that only 36% of adults could name all three branches of the U.S. government; 35% couldn’t name even one. Only 27% of respondents knew that it requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a president’s veto, and 21% wrongly thought that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision must be returned to Congress for reconsideration.

Too bad Annenberg didn’t have survey questions asking the difference between a constitutional right and a business decision. The prerequisite for appreciating the First Amendment requires that one grasp the first five words: “Congress shall make no law.”

Calling for boycotts doesn’t violate free speech; it is free speech. It only violates the First Amendment, if led by agents of the government. Lest we forget, Martin Luther King publicly called for an economic boycott the day prior to his assassination:

“We are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk.”

The First Amendment, however, is not some ubiquitous “get out jail free” card. It has limits. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously opined in 1917, the First Amendment does not cover those who falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater.

But free speech is a check on government, protecting the rights of the individual—a byproduct of the Enlightenment. It does not include Gerber’s decision whether to market its strained spinach on a particular network. Nor does free speech render one immune from repercussions in the marketplace.

A number of corporations have concluded, at least for the foreseeable future, that being associated with Ingraham’s brand was not good for their image.
Maher is guilty of a common misunderstanding by opposing the speech that he philosophically dislikes. Protected speech cajoles, compels, inspires, insults, angers, excites, but is impervious to whether one agrees or disagrees.

Democracies succumb not because of superior ideas, but through the ignorance and neglect of its core principles. One need not be the intellectual equivalent of former justices John Jay or Louis Brandeis, but there must be a shared principle that outweighs the outcome.

A rudimentary constitutional understanding would have been helpful not only for Maher prior to making his uniformed remarks, but also for the millions watching who believed he actually knew what he’s talking about.

Rev. Byron Williams is one of the leading public theologians in the nation. He is a columnist, author, and adjunct professor at Wake Forest University. He is also host of the NPR-affiliated broadcast The Public Morality. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism, 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility, and the forthcoming The Radical Declaration: An Enlightened Ideal Learn more >

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