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Free of Charge 2 – Free to Think and Free to Speak


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/05/22


Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019), Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020), and Short Reflections on Age and Youth (2020). He discusses: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the UDHR, and Article 19 of the UDHR as recognized by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); American Convention on Human Rights; and First Amendment to the American Constitution.

Keywords: freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, Herb Silverman, human rights, rights.

Free of Charge 2 – Free to Think and Free to Speak[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Several documents governing international law and international human rights give endowments to human beings based on the premise of a global rights-based order and particular conceptualizations of the constituents of a human being and, therefore, human nature with the need for freedom of expression as a fundamental part of human life. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the UDHR states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (United Nations, 1948)

On the international law rather than the international right side, Article 19 of the UDHR is recognized by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): 

  1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
  2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
  3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals. (UN General Assembly, 1966)

Indeed, this continues into the national level of the stipulation of rights and laws. The international community not only supports the freedom of speech, but goes much farther than the United States of America in the permission for the widest possible definition of freedom in the transmission of communication between two operators or citizens with the “Freedom of Expression” as opposed to the “Freedom of Speech” enshrined at a national level for America. Why are these international rights and laws important for the protection of individual Americans who may, for example, take a knee in protest of brutality against black Americans in front of the Vice President of the United States?

Dr. Herb Silverman: I think you are asking, in part, about the distinction between freedom of expression and freedom of speech. In the broad sense, I view “expression” as a form of “speech,” non-verbal communication. Taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem is a non-verbal form of protest. Though it may be offensive to many, I support such a perfectly legitimate expression of dissent.

I also support the free-speech rights of those whose actions appall me. Many did not want to allow the Ku Klux Klan to march in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, some years ago. I felt the Klan does a thousand bad things, and I didn’t want to deny them the right to do the one good thing they do—exercise their free-speech right to march. I also disagreed with a local school board that prevented a student from wearing a Confederate flag shirt to school.

The question of free speech often arises in the context of how offensive you are permitted to be, and the extent to which you may be harming others. I support the right of the American Nazi Party to march, even though it might lead to violence. For the same reason, I supported civil rights marchers in the South, which did lead to violence.

However, I am not a free speech absolutist. I agree with the old cliché that you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. I don’t support the right of anyone to purposely incite violence. Anti-abortion activists should not be allowed to publish addresses of doctors who perform abortions, with pictures of targets on their heads.

I don’t think any specific words should be censored. I was appalled when several schools banned the great American novel Huckleberry Finn because one of Mark Twain’s characters was “Nigger” Jim. Of course, the novel was anti-slavery. In one important scene, Huckleberry Finn helps free Nigger Jim from slavery, and says, “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” referring to the belief he was taught about the biblical correctness of owning slaves.

Interestingly, it’s considered OK for African Americans to use the word “nigger” when talking to other African Americans, but it is not considered OK for whites to use the N word. Similarly, it’s acceptable for Jews like me to tell anti-Semitic jokes to fellow Jews, but it is considered wrong for Gentiles to do so. Here is one of my favorite anti-Semitic jokes.

Two Jews see a sign in front of a church that says “$100 to convert.” One of the Jews asks, “Why not? It’s an easy way to make a quick buck,” and enters the church. The other Jew waits outside to see what happens. After forty-five minutes the first Jew comes out and the second Jew asks, “Well, did you get the $100?” The first responds, “Is that all you Jews ever think about, money?”

2. Jacobsen: The relevant regional documents – less commonly known – express many of the similar rights and values for the broad base of communication rights with the freedom of expression include the American Convention on Human Rights. A document for which, especially for a country so often ranting and raving about “freedom of speech,” the United States of America only signed and did not ratify (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 2020). Article 13 states:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of one’s choice.
  2. The exercise of the right provided for in the foregoing paragraph shall not be subject to prior censorship but shall be subject to subsequent imposition of liability, which shall be expressly established by law to the extent necessary to ensure:
  3. respect for the rights or reputations of others; or
  4. the protection of national security, public order, or public health or morals.
  5. The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions.
  6. Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph 2 above, public entertainments may be subject by law to prior censorship for the sole purpose of regulating access to them for the moral protection of childhood and adolescence.
  7. Any propaganda for war and any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitute incitements to lawless violence or to any other similar action against any person or group of persons on any grounds including those of race, color, religion, language, or national origin shall be considered as offenses punishable by law.[Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 1969)

How can Americans when “ranting and raving” about freedom of speech keep in mind the right of other Member States[3] to protest state violence against them by the United States without violent interference in this right to communication?

Silverman: Ranting and raving is protected speech in the United States, including ranting and raving against official U.S. policies. I’ve been known to rant and rave during protests about entering wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and other countries. Many supporters of Donald Trump rant and rave about a so-called “deep state” in America, and something Trump calls “Obamagate,” about which he fails to define or provide evidence. As we can see, ranters and ravers are often misguided and wrong—depending on your point of view.

I also support non-violent civil disobedience (breaking the law) as long as participants are willing to take the consequences of their lawbreaking while trying to change bad laws.

How should the United States engage with other countries? I would like human rights to be a core value, which, unfortunately, it is not under the present administration. We ignore human rights violations when dealing with so-called friends in countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and North Korea, blatant abusers of human rights. We should look for ways to encourage countries we deal with to protect its citizens and treat them fairly. Through the Internet or by other means, we should try to give people in some countries valuable information about basic human rights they deserve. We should also work with our allies on issues like climate change and other science-based information to help make the world a better place.

3. Jacobsen: The First Amendment to the American Constitution states, “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” (Cornell Law School, 2020). A right to freedom from the abridgement of speech – an interesting framing – and the prevention of the creation of a religion by the state while not prohibiting religion at large. What do most Americans forget about this First Amendment regarding rights for speech? What do they always remember, and also forget, about the right to the establishment of religion and the separation of church and state?

Silverman: What many Americans forget about free speech in the First Amendment is that it is there to protect unpopular speech. Popular speech does not need protection.

As far as freedom of religion, many people don’t understand that you can’t have freedom of religion without also having freedom from religion. You are not free if you are forced to choose a deity to worship. Some people don’t understand that we have a secular Constitution with no mention of any gods. Its first three words are “We the People,” not “Thou the Deity.” Many Christian conservatives incorrectly claim that the United States was formed as a Christion nation. They also say that our country now discriminates against Christians, and favors Muslims and atheists. Losing some of the Christian privilege they once had does not constitute discrimination against Christians. Citizens must be treated the same, regardless of their religious beliefs or disbeliefs.

4. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Herb.

Silverman: Thank you.


Cornell Law School. (2020). U.S. Constitution: First Amendment. Retrieved from

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. (2020). B-32: AMERICAN CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS “PACT OF SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA”. Retrieved from

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. (1969, November 22). American Convention on Human Rights. Retrieved from

United Nations General Assembly. (1966, December 16). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Retrieved from

United Nations. (1948, December 10). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Founder, Secular Coalition for America.

[2] Individual Publication Date: May 22, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020:

[3] In this context, a “Member State” refers to a nation, country, or state with approved and formal status within the United Nations.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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