OPINION: Check your free speech at the door

Illustration by Phoebe Monsour.

The freedom of speech is essential to the American way of life. It is the very fabric of American culture: the thing that allows us to criticize our government, demand our rights, express our beliefs, and protest what is wrong.

Of course, such a freedom also carries with it an unavoidable truth. Words are powerful and can be used just as easily to promote progress as they can be used to promote hatred. Words, wielded by intelligent and charismatic individuals, can lead to unrest, uprising, and revolution. To put it simply- words are dangerous.

This quality of free speech can lead people to fear what others have to say. It can lead governments to forcibly silence those who speak against the official powers or censor the ideas of certain people or organizations. Freedom of speech is the enemy of absolute power, and in a representative democracy like the United States, it is our greatest defense against the rise of tyranny.

Unfortunately, recent history seems to suggest that some Americans don’t grasp the importance of the freedom of speech. Many people in our current society believe that “hate speech” should be restricted.

Hate speech can be defined as, “speech that attacks, threatens, or insults a person or group on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.” 

This belief is most easily seen on college campuses. Certain institutions have restricted free speech and protest to designated “free speech zones,” which are often in small, less traveled areas. Some colleges have instituted “speech codes” to prevent potentially offensive speech on their campuses, and in some cases, people have gone so far as to riot in order to prevent controversial speakers from appearing at their school.

Although I believe the supporters of these actions have good intention, these measures are ultimately harmful. When state colleges institute speech codes, they are committing government-sanctioned censorship. This idea is directly against the ideas written in the Consitution and therefore suppresses the rights of the speaker.

The Supreme Court has also set a precedent for protecting all speech, regardless of its offensive nature. Terminiello v.Chicago was a case over a racist and anti-semitic speech given by an ex-Catholic priest named Arthur Terminiello. Terminiello was arrested for a “breach of the peace,” and the case was argued before the Supreme Court. The Court, in a five-to-four decision, sided with Terminello, with Justice William Douglas saying, “a function of free speech under our system is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

The importance of the Freedom of Speech is allowing for open discussion. If I bigot is not allowed to express his views, how will anyone be able to disprove them? What if the idea that has the most merit is also incredibly offensive? Intellectual discussion requires the ability to speak without fear of retribution.

For this reason, it is important for all speech to be permitted, at all times, no matter how offensive. Although it may be unpleasant to hear hateful ideas, it’s worse to create regulations to silence the shrill voices. The laws that protect a bigot’s speech are the same laws that protect the speech of a civil rights activist and removing one’s right to speak inevitably threatens the other’s. In the words of the ACLU, “free speech rights are indivisible.”

I would like to make it clear that I am not attempting to justify hateful comments or actions made against historically persecuted groups of people. Such expressions are grotesque and should not be celebrated. What I argue is that in order to protect our freedom of speech, people must be allowed to express such beliefs. Open discussion and civil discord are necessary in order for society to develop and improve, and that people’s right to do so should be preserved at all cost.

In order to preserve these rights, we must exercise them. Do not stand for policies that threaten the freedom of speech in any way. You have a right to protest and dispute these policies because of the very freedoms they aim to weaken. We must not allow these rights to fall to any threat, no matter how well-intentioned it may seem.

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Hunter Hartlage is a staffer on RedEye this year. He’s a Disney buff with an unhealthy obsession with video games. He loves engaging in political debates, and can often be found listening to classic rock and pondering the meaning of life. You can contact him at hunter.hartlage@manualjc.com

1 COMMENT

  1. Nice job again, Hunter. If you want to read further in depth on this topic, I suggest reading Scott Alexander, and in particular, his “I can tolerate anything but the outgroup.” Conor Friederdorf of The Atlantic may also be a good resource for future articles from this point of view.

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