Freedom to Speak is Not Fully Free

Carmel High School here in Indiana is once again in the midst of a free speech debate.  A student group Voices United are suing for the right a banner that includes a pro-choice message on abortion. The  ACLU of Indiana will represent the students. The  students have  said the administration won’t allow them to hang their banner even though the school allowed an exception to a no advocacy rule for banners for a pro-life group earlier this year.  This seems pretty clear to me.  The exception for the anti-abortion banner puts the school in a position where to block opposing banners is a clear violation of the rights of students.  While the school can clearly decide the message it allows on its walls the students do have a right to fairness if some messages on issues are allowed.  My guess is that the latest banner will be allowed and the high school will start a new year with a better defined policy.  I am hoping that this is a teaching moment and doesn't become a shouting match between adults with agendas.

What also can be a teachable moment is what has been happening at Berkeley.  Earlier this year, a member of what is called the Alt-Right, Milo Yiannopoulos was to speak at the university. Protesters came to the site and violently attacked police and vandalized the area shutting down the speech.  Also a Berkeley, Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak and the school canceled it for fear of violence.  Now I think Milo and Ann have not only ideas I find abhorrent, but I think they are dangerous.  But I think that free speech is not about speech I agree with.  It is specifically about the speech that makes me uncomfortable.  If you want to stop these two, then challenge those that give them the forum and the money.  In Milo's case, that is exactly what happened.  His vitriol and hate encouraged people to seek out what he said and when he seemed to come out in support of sexual relationships between men and young boys he lost the support of many who used his voice for things they couldn't say themselves in public.

Free speech is a tricky thing that many people don't understand.  There is the concept of free speech, and the right of free speech.  We can look at the right of free speech first.  In the Constitution free speech is protected with other rights in the first amendment.  But the right protects you only from the government doing something to punish you for your words or as it is broadly interpreted, actions that speak for you (such as wearing an armband).  While not unlimited, the right protects your ability to speak your mind and was designed in part to keep us free to be critical of those in power.  The right allows you to be free of fear of jail for holding an opinion.  It doesn't however protect you when it comes to inciting actions that would hurt others, distribution of obscene material in certain circumstances, and allows public schools to bar certain kinds of speech on campus including controlling content in student newspapers.  The Supreme Court has also ruled that certain forms of anti-war speech (burning draft cards and encouraging people not to sign up for selective service) are not protected.  But for the most part the government doesn't arrest you for what you say.

Now the concept of free speech is broader.  It is not about a right.  This is often cited in situations like Berkeley.  If Berkeley truly supported free speech, the argument goes, they would do everything in their power to let Ms. Coulter speak.  Even if a majority of the campus didn't approve.  In fact maybe because of it.  You see free speech is an easy thing when  you agree with what is being said.  It is actually designed for speech you don't agree with.

Most people think they believe in free speech right up to the point they are confronted with something they don't like.  There have been so many incidence of free speech issues in the last few weeks that it is hard to shake them all out.  Stephen Colbert's not very child-friendly attack on the President the other day is a great example.  You see he was angry that the President was making fun of a CBS reporter to his face and of course proper decorum meant the reporter, who respects the Office of the President couldn't crack back.  However Colbert felt he could.  Like an enforcer in hockey he took the fight to the bully.  It was crude, it was rude and it was protected by our Constitution and by the idea of free speech.  Many on the right went to twitter screaming that he should be fired.  Some wanted him arrested.  But one intrepid right wing radio host, Tony Katz,  summed it up best.  You don't fire Colbert, you compete against him.  Make him not valued.  Turn him off.  This strategy works.  You see everyone on TV, in media, who is famous are so because of you, me and the buying public.  That is why boycotts work.  In another recent series of events, there has been a coordinated effort by a person on twitter to shame advertisers from letting ads run on the Alt-Right website Breitbart.  Sleeping Giants has been successful at getting major online advertisers to stop allowing their ads to run on the site, thus slowing down their revenue stream.  Some see this as running afoul of the concept of free speech.  But the concept isn't meant to force those who find something objectionable to remain silent.

And that call for silence is what leads to the idiotic notion of political correctness.  Today, if you challenge the language someone uses when talking of others you are charged with the crime of being politically correct.  The idea started with authoritarian regime in the old Soviet Union, that called for people to have a correct way to speak of things.  They must be politically correct.  Later liberals in places like Berkeley and Ann Arbor were using to make fun of those who tried to out liberal each other.  EX:  Her Birkenstock are made with fair trade faux leather, no animals were killed and the workers all have fair wages and insurance.  She is way more politically correct.  Then George H. W. Bush used it in a speech at the University of Michigan's 1991 Commencement.  I was 10 blocks away when he said this:

Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses. The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.

He was lamenting a rising awareness of those who had been forced to margins of society now stepping up and demanding respect and dignity, even in how they were spoken of in public.  This one paragraph has for over 25 years continue to be the foundation of a movement that suggests that free speech is limited if we collective so much disapprove of a form of speech that we don't let it said in our halls, on our dime or in our name.  What is acceptable in public is not always about squashing a political or ideological position.  But we as a society can and should decide what we consider appropriate behavior in public.  (In private say whatever you want and no one should be able to control that).  There were times were men were ostracized if they brought up certain topics in mixed company (meaning men and women).  That women were shunned if they had strongly held opinions. You could lose your job for criticizing members of the church.  No one talked about political correctness then.  In fact no one talks about people who attacked Colbert this week as being politically correct.  For the record I thought he took it a tad too far.  But when those in power feared those outside of power might be able to stand up for themselves these charges started.  I have gotten to the point when I hear someone say something about political correctness, I assume they are angry that they can't call a black man the n-word or a Jew a kike.  Because I am not sure what else they might mean.  What I do know is that I wouldn't want to be associated with them, but if the government came knocking because they simply used those words, I would fight for them.


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