Free Speech Isn't Free - The Missourian: Editorials

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Free Speech Isn't Free

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Posted: Friday, October 11, 2013 6:30 pm

Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Henry Folsom told Jeffrey Weinhaus that he didn’t bear any ill feelings toward him, his family or his friends.

But he wanted Weinhaus to know something: “Freedom of speech is not free.” You can really hurt someone exercising your First Amendment Right to free speech.

Folsom made the statement Thursday afternoon after Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Bob Parks called him to testify during the penalty phase of Weinhaus’ trial.

Minutes before, a Franklin County jury found Weinhaus, the controversial anti-government blogger, guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer, armed criminal action and drug charges.

Now it was Folsom’s turn to talk about the First Amendment. He didn’t hold back. He let Weinhaus, his supporters and the jury know that he had paid a steep price for his involvement in the case in which he shot Weinhaus while trying to arrest him.

His life and his family’s lives had been changed forever. His name and a video of the shooting had been plastered all over the Internet by Weinhaus and his supporters. He had been called a “liar” and been threatened and his reputation and integrity trashed on websites that target rogue cops. His career was ruined “for just doing my job.”

“Freedom of speech,” Folsom concluded, “we all have that right, but you used that right to hurt people.” It was riveting testimony.

Weinhaus wasn’t afraid of pushing the envelope of the First Amendment. He had a long history of publishing inflammatory diatribes about public officials. Like a lot of people today, Weinhaus often referenced the Constitution in making his points, especially when he argued for “taking back the country.” He fancied himself a revolutionary and anti-government activist. The Internet gave him a bigger stage to air his grievances.

The root of his criminal case had to do with the increasingly provocative videos he posted to the Internet. Authorities felt his freedom of expression crossed the line to direct threats against judges and other government officials.

At his trial, Weinhaus’ attorneys attempted to portray him as a victim of overzealous police officers. The jury didn’t buy it. They recommended a sentence of 63 years on the guilty charges. Folsom’s powerful testimony on how freedom of speech devastated him undoubtedly played a role in the jury’s decision.

Ours is the most outspoken society on earth, as First Amendment scholar Anthony Lewis once said. Americans are freer to say what they want more than any other time in our nation’s history. Hateful and shocking expression, whether political or artistic, is free to enter the marketplace of ideas. That marketplace is a lot easier to access today because of the Internet, smartphones and video technology.

But freedom of speech isn’t absolute. There are limits. And there are consequences.

Weinhaus learned that Thursday.

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