The Noisy Gong In the First Amendment


We are witnessing the inevitable clash between two standards of law in this country. Whenever there is a dispute, dig for the unspoken issues behind the entrenched positions. You will find the source of the fight. The positions are whether or not Twitter can de-platform anyone in a country like ours that enshrines freedom of speech. The issue is the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.


Weekend pictures in the media of the January 6 breach of the Capitol building included what I would consider one of the most horrible messages I laid my eyes upon in my life. It said: “Camp Auschwitz”. You can say all you want that a movement is not white supremacist or neo-Nazi but once you have a message like that among your members, you lost the argument immediately.


The incident included Twitter’s purging of many accounts including those of the President and the removal of Parler from Amazon Web Services.


The First Amendment vs Private Groups

The first amendment protects all speech from government censure. Private corporations can do what they want. One case illustrating this principle comes from Boston. The Evacuation Day veteran’s parade excluded gay veterans’ groups. Gay veterans could march as veterans but not as gay veterans. The Supreme Court stood with parade organizers as a private event. Organizers can exclude whomever they want. The parade organizers since reversed their position but without Supreme Court intervention.


The United States Constitution prohibits the government from censoring speech except in the rare case of causing a panic. The First Amendment protects the message on the sweatshirt above by the letter of the law. It is not protected by the spirit of the law. In other words, it is a legal protection, not a moral one.


John Adams taught that the constitution was written for a moral people. Richard Samuelson writing at the John Adams Center for the study of faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs said:

These words of President Adams remind us of what used to be a common idea–liberty entails responsibility, and absent religion (even with it, alas) many people will choose immorality and irresponsibility.”


The standard of morality is charity with each other. Jesus defined it as the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Societies need laws to make up for where there is no charity. The less charity in a society the more laws it requires.


The law is the minimum standard.

St. Paul said it well in 1 Corinthians 13 which every bride and groom know. If we live without charity even though we may be doing heroic actions, we are nothing more than “a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal.” Lawyers teach the law is a follower and sets up the minimum standard in reaction to a situation. Laws come to existence after a reason for them appears and not the other way around.


The law as the minimum standard legally protects the horrendous message in the United States — it is criminal in Europe. The reason is so what I am writing now cannot be prohibited just because someone in government does not like it, even though I am writing nothing so offensive as the message on the sweatshirt. The spirit of the law which Augustine defined as “in all things charity” prohibits any association with the message because it is so offensive.


Discerning the difference

How do you figure out the difference? Here is one test. If it is legally protected imagine yourself arguing your case before a judge. The judge could easily say he finds the statement on the sweatshirt horrendous but the law says that he has no power to prohibit you from wearing it.


Now imagine yourself arguing the same case but the judge is Christ Himself. Do you think you would win in the higher court of law where the rule is in all things charity? You can argue forever and may end up doing so, you will never win.

Let’s look at the Twitter case. One of the arguments for not getting de-platformed on Twitter is that the Ayatollah of Iran and the Chinese Communist Party still maintain accounts on the platform. Again, are you going to argue that case before Christ? Do you really want to claim moral ground by comparing your words to the tweets of the Ayatollah?


American culture measures everything by the legal standard which is a minimum standard instead of the moral standard which is a higher bar. How many times do we hear from people of all ages: “I have my rights!! We have free speech in this country!” St. Paul calls to us to live at a higher standard than the law — doing what is best for another instead of doing what the law allows me to do.


The Bill of Rights assumes charity

The protections in the Bill of Rights assume charity as John Adams said. When a society lives without charity, it falls back on the law to protect the whole society. The way to push the legal boundaries is to eliminate charity from your life and do what you want. You may even be able to argue successfully you are doing the right thing. If you are doing it without charity you fit St. Paul’s description of the noisy gong and clanging cymbal.


I can say anything I want in this country because of the First Amendment but charity mandates me to say only what is best for others and society. So, I can stake my life on the freedoms of this country standing on the laws but I further the freedoms of this country by living the law of charity. The sweatshirt is an example of protected speech. My hatred of the message and my choice not to associate with anyone who would wear such a vile garment nor patronize anyone who would sell it is my testifying to the higher standard of charity.


I spoke and wrote many times that one place Catholics do not belong is Twitter. Many use the platform to make statements expressed inefficiently at best and often uncharitably. One rather notorious tweet was when one Catholic made extremely uncharitable, unsubstantiated detractions against the Obamas. Another is the case of the bishop who loves to use Twitter and wrote that Catholics did not belong at the city’s gay pride parade because it was immoral. I see no reason for him to write such a message in a public worldwide forum. He received such intense push back, he tempered his message defeating his purpose of writing it in the first place.


The reason for the purge on Twitter is that the letter of the law clashed with the spirit of the law. Twitter may use a different standard for those on the left than for those on the right but you cannot argue that point in the court of charity.


I learned long ago, social media, due to its impersonal nature, fosters uncharitable interaction and cyberbullying. People try to prove they are always right or make a stand for their positions angrily or adamantly — charity goes out of the window.


John Adams understood the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law. The Constitution was created for a moral people who likewise can discern the difference.

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