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Posted November 29, 2011

Freedom of speech: Watch your language!

By Father Eugene Hemrick
Catholic News Service

In a First Amendment case last year, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on whether or not a Kansas-based church has the right to protest homosexuality at the funerals of slain service members.

The First Amendment states that "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."

This volatile case gives us an opportunity to examine the meaning of freedom of speech more closely.

Speech can be inspiring, depraved, energizing, depressing, supportive, abusive, melodious or abrasive.

What criterion should be used to decide when speech is or is not acceptable?

Do we have a right to verbally abuse anyone we choose because of the First Amendment?

Are we allowed to talk about lewd topics as we please?

Are we entitled to use haranguing or seditious language at will?

Where is the line to be drawn?

We step over the line when human dignity is endangered, sanctity of life is ignored and irreverence is preferred to reverence!

The word "reverence" in German means to have a sense of awe. It also implies keeping a sacred distance.

During his lifetime, Pope John Paul II repeatedly reminded us that God's awesome spirit is within us and that we are wondrous creatures. He also reminded us that we aren't inanimate things but persons endowed with a beautiful human spirit.

To keep a sacred distance means to never intrude on others' space, invade their privacy, try to possess them or take them for granted.

Reverence reminds us that, when we are in the presence of another, we are in the presence of nobility: We have a duty to honor the distinctive eminence within each of us. The Rule of Benedict on hospitality captures this nobility par excellence: welcome a visitor as if he or she is Christ.

No doubt this sounds very idealistic. It is, just as the concept of freedom of speech is idealistic.

To have freedom of speech is to be allowed to express ourselves without being suppressed so that the precious gift of speech might be preserved.

As with all lofty ideals, their down-to-earth practice is another story. More often than not, they are suppressed or conveniently ignored because of the demands they require.

It is ever so easy to verbally bash someone we don't like. It is much more difficult to respect the person even though he or she isn't to our liking or is out of order.

Equally true is the fact that ideals are meant to improve life and to work toward the common good.

Again, this is easier said than done. When human dignity is abused in speech, generally it is because one's own agenda comes before the demands of the common good.

The case of freedom of speech before the Supreme Court affords us an opportunity to reflect on the degree to which human dignity in speech is cherished and respected.