How you feel about free speech probably depends on what you think is free speech.

Once again I find myself observing arguments about who has a right to say what and where and how. Who has a right to show what pictures, wear what t-shirts, and hold up what signs.

Most people who argue “what they are doing is NOT free speech!” are motivated primarily by the fact that they disagree with what is being said. Sometimes they take it a step further and label it “hate speech.” Which sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. But as Americans we cannot agree on what is hate speech or what is free speech.

Is free speech the right to share your ideas? Yes, if it is standing on a street corner with a sign? Yes, if it is standing on a street corner screaming at the person with the sign?

Is free speech the right to inconvenience others? Yes, if they have to walk around you standing on a street corner with your sign? Yes, if they have to drive around you standing in the street with your sign?

Is free speech the right to share your ideas? Yes, if you have a crowd of people who has paid to hear them? Yes if one person in that crowd interrupts your speech with their own?

Is free speech the right to call for the removal of political figures? Yes, if you say they need to be voted out of office? Yes if you say they need to be run out of your community?

Is free speech the right to call people names? Yes, if that person is a political figure? Yes, if that person is walking into a church or planned parenthood clinic? Yes, so long as you believe it is true? Yes, if those names are derogatory cultural, racial, or ethnic terms?

Is it free speech to wear a t-shirt claiming your views? It is free speech to be told you aren’t allowed somewhere because of your t-shirt?

Is it hate speech to stand on a college campus and call women wearing shorts “sluts”? Is it hate speech to stand on a college campus and call men wearing shorts “sluts”?

Is it hate speech to say that your cultural or ethnic identity has some element worth preserving and honoring? Is it hate speech if others don’t believe you have a “real” cultural or ethnic identity?

Is it hate speech to stand on a street corner with a sign that reads “You are an idiot”? Is it hate speech to yell “you are an idiot” at people walking past? Is it hate speech to stand up in an auditorium and yell at a speaker “you are an idiot”? Is it hate speech to run up to the speaker, jump on stage, a yell in their face “YOU ARE AN IDIOT”?

All too often, we want to believe in free speech as a stand alone idea. And many well intended individuals will argue about it as if it is an independent concept. There is always context involved. Free speech is complicated. And when we hear in the news that someone’s “free speech” was violated, it is often a headline without context. Often shared and promoted by those who share the ideology of the person claiming to be the victim of injustice to provoke a knee jerk reaction.

Don’t be a knee jerker. Get the whole context.
P.S. I couldn’t find a way to work this in but it also reminds me of this joke. A Scotsman comes to the U.S. for college. His mom calls and asks how he is doing with the Americans, especially in the dorms. He says “My neighbor on the right bangs on the wall all night and the one on the left screams all night.” The mom immediately says “that’s awful, how do you deal with it?” He says “I just keep playing my bagpipes and ignoring them.”

 

 

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