Freedom of speech is no excuse

While perusing the “Inside Higher Ed” this morning, I came across an interesting article:

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/10/16/college-presidents-and-provosts-gather-consider-issues-free-speech

As a brief synopsis, this article discusses how over 60 university presidents and provosts met last week at the University of Chicago to discuss freedom of speech and speaker disruptions across college campuses. Columbia University, University of Michigan, College of William and Mary, Texas Southern University, University of Oregon, and our own Virginia Tech have experienced speaker interruptions within the past few weeks. At Virginia Tech, the President gave a speech during which one person questioned why he hired white supremacists and another yelled that we need to get Nazis off our campus. These people were escorted away by the police.

The purpose of this meeting was to determine how institutions of higher education should respond to speaker disruptions etc. Overall, it appears that the participants of this event agree that freedom of speech is important to uphold on college campuses.  Others argue that it is imperative that students be better educated about what freedom of speech actually means and that this generation is one of “snowflakes,” students who are unable to process and effectively communicate about issues that are uncomfortable. Much disagreement about the sentiment of “snowflakes” exists. The article also discusses the massive costs involved in hosting speakers with controversial viewpoints. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent to “keep the peace” at these events.

To me, it seems that while universities are places that should embrace different opinions and perspectives, being cruel, unkind, and promoting violence and hate go beyond freedom of speech. Just because you are “allowed” to say something does not mean that you should.

Image result for some people's idea of free speech

I believe the line between when something controversial falls under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech vs. when is it unlawful (or deemed it should be) lies in the purpose behind the words. If the purpose is to help people better understand a particular vantage point and is used to spread knowledge, not hate, it is freedom of speech. When the purpose is to instigate a fight, instill hate and fear among the masses, and to hurt various groups of people with words, that crosses the line.

How should “freedom of speech” be enforced? And how does the constitution define it exactly, in today’s world (i.e., not the world of when the Constitution was written)? I have no idea. But I do know that our current administration appears to welcome fight, fire, hate, and fear, rather than to welcome knowledge, communication, acceptance, and understanding. The direction this country is heading is deeply troubling to me. When calling others nasty names because it is “freedom of speech” becomes this commonplace, we should all be scared. Most children are taught to speak politely and not say mean things … why do we forget this sentiment as adults?

2 Replies to “Freedom of speech is no excuse”

  1. Great points. I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve become so entrenched as a country in the thinking that anyone who disagrees with us must be evil or bad or willfully ignorant. This leads to arguments instead of discussions and sometimes to worse. I totally agree that when speech is being used to instigate violence or fear (such as neo-nazism and white supremacy), we need to take measures to ensure the people they threaten are protected, but I do fear that when we draw lines, either as a government or as a university administration, we often draw them with a biased hand. It’s not hard to imagine that what starts as a good idea to remove hate speech and fear ends as a means of legally enforcing our own personal opinions. I wish people would choose on their own to keep their speech civil because I love the benefits of honest discussion, but I fear limits on free speech more than I fear freedom of speech. I guess I have little enough confidence that government leaders can be impartial that I’d rather they didn’t have even more authority to silence people they might not agree with.

  2. It is interesting as international student, the current state of freedom in the US. Once considered something to replicate, it is lately that freedom takes some shape of pseudo-freedom. In Spanish there is a word ‘libertinaje’ that is basically the abuse of freedom ‘libertad’. Semantic the words are close, but in practice they are very fair. Same with freedom and abuse of freedom.

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