Free Speech: A True Blessing and a Terrible Curse
Originally published on February 14, 2018
The first amendment is one of the greatest achievements of the Founding Fathers, and yet it has caused an incredible amount of controversy since its creation. The First Amendment specifically states the following: “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.” While the First Amendment protects some of the most fundamental human rights from governmental assault or outright removal, it is undeniably vague about where to draw the line, and while this may have been done intentionally, it creates certain problems with legal interpretations. Freedom of speech, for example, cannot be granted indefinitely. The most commonly cited example of this is the case of someone shouting “fire” in a movie theater when there is, in fact, no fire. Such an act would not be protected under the First Amendment, as it does not include the right to incite actions that would hurt others, according to Schenck v. United States. However, other incidents are not so easy to categorize, and this confusion has led to a significant amount of controversy in recent history.
Many controversial incidents involving free speech have occurred on college campuses when so-called “inciting” speakers, who are typically conservative, have been either turned away or harassed by students or the university itself. Many conservatives believe that such treatment is evidence of a war on conservative free speech. One of the most publicized incidents of this occurred at Brown University in 2013. Ray Kelly, the New York Police Department Commissioner, was invited to speak about his policy of “stop and frisk,” which granted police officers the right to randomly search anyone who they deemed suspicious; however, many considered this policy to be a thinly veiled excuse for racial profiling. Unfortunately, Kelly was unable to deliver his speech as protesters overran the event and made it impossible for Kelly to open his mouth without receiving a barrage of verbal assault. The event was eventually cancelled after half an hour. While many of the student protesters were satisfied with the result, many members of the Brown University teaching staff were disappointed with the students’ inability to have a constructive dialogue. Kelly was not inciting a riot or intentionally harming any of the students present- his intentions were actually to explain the statistical rationale behind “stop and frisk”- and yet those who disagreed with him were completely unwilling to grant him the right to speak.
This inability to tolerate dissenting opinions has become a frequent occurrence in the past few years. For example, students attending the University of California, Berkeley, have expressed significant outrage at the conservative speakers who have been invited to speak on their campus in the past few years, including Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Ben Shapiro. Regardless of their political ideologies, these speakers came to inform, educate, and debate, and yet they were either hit with ridiculous security fees or actually thrown into a potentially life-threatening situation. Free speech should have its limits, but silencing opinions for the sole reason of not agreeing with them is a very dangerous idea to normalize.
However, contrary to popular conservative opinion, the war on free speech is not exclusively directed towards conservative opinions. Over the past couple of years, a huge outcry regarding protests during the national anthem played before each NFL match has started. The protests, which were initiated by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, started as a reaction to police brutality against African Americans but grew into a national outcry against racial injustice in the United States. These protests, which often took the form of either kneeling or sitting during the national anthem, were widely criticized throughout the country, most recently by President Trump himself during the State of the Union address. Many critics of the protests claimed that it was disrespectful to the US flag and to those who fought in the military. However, the First Amendment actually includes the right to “engage in symbolic speech” according to Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman. Kaepernick has since been blackballed by the NFL, and he currently remains unsigned by any team. An anonymous owner of one NFL team claimed that “no one wants to deal with that,” referring to the controversy that will now accompany Kaepernick for the rest of his career. This attitude is shared by the majority of NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell; unless something changes, Kaepernick’s career as an NFL quarterback is effectively over. The so-called war on free speech is by no means solely targeting conservatives; in fact, many conservatives are leading the charge against Kaepernick, who is just as entitled to protest during the national anthem as they are to expect civilized behavior during speeches on college campuses. However, as mentioned earlier, free speech cannot be granted without limit, and knowing where and how to draw the line is an unfortunately frustrating and complex issue.
The white supremacist march in Charlottesville was a real wake-up call to any American who believed the Nazi Party had died with Adolf Hitler at the end of the Second World War. American white supremacists, often called neo-Nazis, have re-entered the public spotlight ever since the election in 2016, which may be in part due to Trump’s tendency to speak without considering the potential fallout of his comments. Many Americans believe that these neo-Nazis should not be afforded the same right to free speech that other Americans are granted, and while this seems like a sensible idea, it highlights the main complication with limiting free speech: who decides what speech should be silenced? If the government has the ability to silence one kind of speech, then they are undoubtedly free to silence another kind of speech in the future.
If popular opinion decides what speech should be silenced, then morality becomes determined by the majority, which is incredibly dangerous and completely antithetical to objective reality and natural law. Bestowing authority to limit free speech on either the government or the people has dire consequences either way, and unfortunately, there is no concrete solution to solving the issue of free speech. Freedom of speech is really just the freedom to vocalize an idea, and living in the age of the internet has rendered the destruction of an idea almost impossible. Ultimately, we must face the fact that while some abuses of free speech are clearly punishable, there are incidents that do not directly break the law but provoke outrage nonetheless. Granting anyone the authority to silence such incidents ends one problem but creates another. We must accept the grim reality that, in this instance, there truly is no solution.
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