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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Why does free speech only matter on college campuses?

I’m not dumb. I’ve seen the news. I realize that college campuses are a hotbed of free speech issues right now. And the backlash has primarily been directed at conservative speakers. Hence every Republican led state government is looking at some sort of “campus free speech” bill. But that is part of my point I think.

The “shout down,” “physical disruption,” and “mass intimidation” tactics that liberal students are using against conservative speakers are the very tactics many of them learned from the conservatives. Head over to your local Planned Parenthood and see how the religious zealots are handling things there.

Despite the focus on campus free speech issues there have been many more protests, counter-protests, and acts of violence related to off-campus free speech issues. But now, conservative state legislatures are suddenly worried – only because they see themselves as the victims – about campus free speech. When the crazy preacher guy is screaming at their daughters for being “sluts” for wearing shorts to class and gets shouted down by fellow students, they don’t seem to care.

What really set me off was an article about the Wisconsin legislature who wants to impose state mandated “sentencing” for those found guilty of violating free speech. Second offense gets you suspended and third gets you expelled. Yet there is no other law or campus code that has such a thing. Men found guilty of rape don’t get such a thing. Fraternities that cause the deaths of their members from hazing, drinking, and cover-ups don’t get such a thing. Let that sink in. Conservative law makers care more about not getting shouted down and harassed than they do about campus sexual assault or fraternity deaths.

The “free exchange of ideas” is a fundamental bedrock of higher education. But so is campus safety. If you are going to impose state mandated sentences, do it for all crimes and code violations. But then your rich white kids you send to those schools and join those privileged fraternities might face consequences…..better to just aim at the liberals and hope that your kids education doesn’t turn them into one of them.

 

Update: Nikki Haley, form South Carolina Governor and now Ambassador to the UN was heckled at the New York Pride parade. The woman who once defended the gay marriage ban was shocked she wasn’t welcomed with open arms. Maybe we will soon outlaw create free speech laws for parades as well.

Shouting people down is not the same as free speech

I have watched it play out on campus after campus this past year. And it has begun to creep into off-campus protests and events as well including local government meetings and civic events. Somewhere along the way, we have confused shouting people down with free speech. When it is rather the opposite. It is suppression. I am specifically talking about the idea that free speech means being allowed to stand in someone’s face and scream at them or disrupt and shut down an event.

Let me set a ground rule before I start. I don’t believe all ideas are equally valid. I don’t even think all ideas are worth giving air time to or listening too. However, all people, have a right to their own ideas. They have a right to gather together and discuss their ideas with like minded people. And to a certain extent, the government should not be involved in suppressing those rights. In fact, this is the very thing the has built progressive America into what it is today. I have an even bigger concern when the legislatures start weighing in with free speech bills and legislation that are clearly punitive to one side or idea.

The majority of the context I am speaking about is with higher education. Let me begin by telling you a secret. [whispers] There are conservative students, faculty, and staff in higher education. And that’s okay. A certain vocal minority within the left has convinced themselves that higher education, particularly large, public, liberal arts colleges, are bubbles of pure untouched left wing thinkers whose only limitation is the moderately left leaning administration.

Then when some small conservative group (or any group with an idea they find questionable) gets together – regardless of cause – they immediately want to hound them, suppress them, shout them down, and drive them from campus. This is not freedom of speech nor the free exchange of ideas. This is mob mentality, intimidation, and suppression. This is not what we claim our institutions value.

Three years ago, at my nearby college, the largest campus religious group invited a nationally known anti-GLBT speaker. The speaker is a strong advocate of being able to “pray the gay away”. Almost no one noticed. This year, that same group, has noticeably limited their advertisements about who they are inviting and has actually started employing security for their meetings. The largest. campus. religious. group.

This sort of “majority rules” “mob-intimidation mentality” that forces people to think and act like the majority wants them to act is dangerous – be it left, right, up, or down. And the truth is that it isn’t really a majority. It is another minority (for now). But it is a minority to whom the largely left-of-center campus is sympathetic. And as such, few seem to perceive the danger in this and many are willing to tolerate it. Though few are around to actually watch when dozens of shouting people surround one or two lone people and scream them down. The intimidation and fear is real and intentional. But afterwards and beforehand, the crowd wants to label it “free speech.”

I worry about this as the military has previously been a target of visceral free speech. The Martin Niemöller statement of “First they came for the socialists….” sticks in my head. So now, me, a social liberal, religious progressive, and social justice advocate, has to say we’re going too far. (Maybe it’s not “too far,” maybe it is just the wrong direction?)

I was proud of our local college when they did not let an invited speaker get suppressed by those who proudly boasted of their intent to disrupt the event and shut it down. Even though some students, faculty, and locals made it cost a fortune and made it get ugly. Yes, I found myself being proud that we let a conservative speaker with some ideas that resound of racism and bias come speak. That part hurts I admit. I’m not proud that we invited him but I’m proud that our students who invited him were able to hear him. I was not proud that some in our community’s plan to protest it was to shut it down. Too often the majority has ruled by intimidation and suppression. We can’t allow this to be the way our emerging progressive majority acts if want to claim to be inclusive.

Permission to speak freely?

What is free speech? I mean, we use that term all the time. I’m sure there is some legal definition somewhere that almost nobody knows. In pop culture, we think it is some guy standing on a street corner protesting the nuclear bombs or the right to write whatever you want in a blog and post it on the internet. That’s free speech right?

Is free speech an action or a concept? Is it a social construct? Is it subject to change, interpretation, and more importantly – situational?

Is yelling “fire” in a crowded theater free speech? What about yelling “bomb” on a plane? If you have a gun in your hand and yell “I’m going to kill you!” at someone, is that free speech?

If you and I both have something to say that opposes each other, do we both have a right to say it? What if one of us intimidated the other into not speaking? Were someone’s rights infringed there? What if one of us just shouts over the other is that still free speech? If I bring my friends to help me shout over you?

Does free speech protect a minority opinion? Was it what protected the civil rights movement? Abolitionists? Does it protect the Klan and Neo-Nazis? How minority of an opinion can it be and still be protected?

If we say that we are open to all, and one of those all espouses an opinion we don’t agree with, are we open to all? Or are we only open to those whose speech doesn’t offend us? If we are only open to speech that doesn’t offend us, is that really free speech?

Does a group have a right to invite whoever they want to speak to the group? Is that free speech? Does religion matter? What if it is a religious view we totally disagree with? A political view we totally disagree with? If the group is threatened by those who want to shut down their opinions and views, do we as a community have a right to defend them and support them?

At what point does majority rule and over ride your freedom of speech?