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Free speech is totally free (as long as you use a little common sense)

By: DYLAN LEMERT

Columnist

@dlemert

Amidst all the pressing issues like unruly gas prices or the flailing economy or modern-day racism, it’s easy to overlook the often head-scratch inducing situations like the one that transpired in Greenville, Kentucky last week.

James Evans, 31, spent eight days in jail, not for assault or theft or even D.U.I., but for posting song lyrics to his Facebook page.

A vintage advertisement comments on freedom of speech. Many believe the arrest of James Evans to be a violation of First Amendment rights. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

A vintage advertisement comments on freedom of speech. Many believe the arrest of James Evans to be a violation of First Amendment rights. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Granted, those lyrics were from a song called “Class Dismissed (A Hate Primer)” by Richmond, California metal band Exodus. And of course, Evans chose to quote the admittedly savage line, “Student bodies lying dead in the halls, a blood splattered treatise of hate. Class dismissed is my hypothesis, gunfire ends the debate.”

Nonetheless, a public response soon budded and spread upon news of Evans’ arrest, some commending the measure as a simple nipping-in-the-bud of an act of impending terrorism, others citing the situation as further proof the U.S. is spiraling toward a totalitarian form of statehood.

Members of Exodus were also quick to respond, with a statement by guitarist Gary Holt reading, “The idea that an individual in this great country of ours could be arrested for simply posting lyrics to a song is something I never believed could happen in a free society.”

The statement continues with Holt explaining that “Class Dismissed” was inspired by the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, and was in no way meant to endorse that horrific atrocity or others like it. “We put the brakes on playing [the song] live after the Sandy Hook shooting, as we did not want to seem insensitive.”

But is Evan’s imprisonment really an indication of our society’s venture toward becoming the “Orwellian society” Holt later proposes? Or is this all simply a one-off freedom of speech miscalculation?

Sometimes we forget that when our constitutional amendments were drafted, there was not the same overarching threat of schoolyard violence there is today, nor was there a platform where one could go to say something capable of being heard, in theory, by anyone with an internet connection.

The reality of these two variables and their coexistence doesn’t change the definition of free speech; what it does is narrow the extent to which it may be practiced. The result is that freedom of speech now comes burdened with a strict, unspoken clause: you are permitted to speak freely, but you absolutely must use common sense.

That said, I think most of us may agree, myself included, that sending a person to jail for any amount of time simply because that person posted song lyrics to social media, with no other evidence of intended violence, is extreme. There are countless examples over the centuries of artists (and by default, consumers) having gotten away with much worse.

Ultimately, I’m inclined to think the real heart of the matter doesn’t begin or end upon the ranks of free speech, but is rather accredited to a basic misunderstanding of satire. One of the great roles of art has always been as devil’s advocate. We inevitably run into trouble when we begin to confuse harmless irony with real, immediate danger. It’s imperative we turn from this attitude of over-seriousness and overprotectiveness lest irony, nuance or anything of the sort go extinct.

Until that day comes, I suppose I’ll take a cue from Mr. Evans and start watching what I type a little more closely.

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