I’m all for the freedom of speech. People should have the right to say whatever [choose your adjective] thing they want. We should, but in the interest of civilization we’ve set boundaries against things like hate speech, which the American Bar Association defines as communication that “offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” So we don’t have the right to use “fighting words,” which are “without social value” and could be expected to provoke the listener, but the First Amendment does give us the freedom to say things that are offensive and hateful or that the listener may disagree with. If someone wants to explain the difference, I’d be grateful.
It’s not threats or insults that concern me here. There’s no excuse for those. It’s the offending part of the definition that prompted me to write this, because in the news I’ve been coming across examples of censorship or self-censorship that come from fear of offending a group. Basically putting people’s feelings—and the chance that they might get hurt—above the freedom of expression. It’s a clear example of how emotions impact politics, something near and dear to my heart.
The Wall Street Journal recently featured a good article on this—specifically about the “death of free speech” on American university campuses. The author was discussing this problem with legal activist Greg Lukianoff, who works with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. You should read the article itself, but I’ll cite some of its examples here. Certain US universities do not allow students to use the internet for sending “annoying” messages, or to hold “sexist” or “condescending sex-based” attitudes. How does one police attitudes that people hold in their minds, anyway? One student newspaper was found guilty of harassment for printing information “about the status of women in Saudi Arabia during the school’s ‘Islamic Awareness Week.’” In another case, administrators pressured College Republicans into retracting an invitation for conservative pundit Ann Coulter to come speak, criticizing them for being willing to “intentionally inflict pain on another human being because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.”
Were the College Republicans planning to chain students to their seats during the talk? If Coulter had come to speak and students had come to listen (somehow not knowing what to expect?), they could have walked out if/when they found her offensive.
And is being offended really that bad, anyway? Students should be taught how to express their ideas, exposed to other ways of thinking, and shown how to argue for or against something with respect. Trying to keep them in an emotional bubble is doing them no favor.
Another problem is that people differ in sensitivity. Something that scandalizes one person might not even register with another. Which type do we use as a guide? Someone, most likely Oliver Wendell Holmes, said “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” We’ve all heard this. If we’re talking about the physical self, it’s clear enough what it means, but how do we determine where the average person’s exclusive emotional zone (EEZ) ends?
I’ll say more about this in my next post, to keep this one from becoming too long.