Free Speech 101

The First Amendment remains close to the hearts of lovers of democracy everywhere. It states, “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.” The First Amendment is a right that we, as Americans, are privileged to have when all over the world, journalists are jailed for criticizing the government and locals cannot speak ill of the regime they live under.

The First Amendment, however, was not created to pardon all kinds of obscene and offensive language. Justice Holmes stated in the Frohwerk v. United States case that, “the First Amendment while prohibiting legislation against free speech as such cannot have been and obviously was not, intended to give immunity for every possible use of language.” However, people all around the nation abuse the First Amendment and manipulate it to mean that they can say anything, no matter how racist, homophobic, xenophobic, inconsiderate and offensive, with no consequence.

All across the nation, more specifically on college campuses where students have protested visitors that are controversial (the politically correct word for racist or xenophobic) such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter, critics have stated that the younger generation tries to mask itself from language that goes against the acceptable norm.

While college campuses are supposed to be the safe haven of idea sharing and discourse, most overlook language that question marginalized groups’ identities. Ulrich Baer from the New York Times makes a good point in explaining that Yale, “…also criticized the ‘arrogant insensitivity’ of free speech advocates who failed to acknowledge that requiring of someone in public debate to defend their human worth conflicts with the community’s obligation to assure all of its members equal access to public speech.” The problem with defending jokes that are racist, homophobic or xenophobic for the sake of free speech is that they offer no productive discourse in any way. What can be debated about an entire group’s experience? How can you, as an outsider, as someone who has never undergone the experiences of a rape victim, of someone part of a marginalized group trying to survive in a country that thrives on a system that is designed for white, heterosexual males to succeed, question or “debate” their experience?

If you really wanted to understand different viewpoints about a topic, specifically a sensitive one that questions a group’s humanity, you have the Internet. There is no reason to trigger, yes trigger, experience of potential rape victims, of members of society that have to fight daily to battle stereotypes to just exist, for you to engage in seemingly productive discourse. By defending jokes or discourse that questions one’s very existence, you are refusing to be empathetic in any sort of way to their experience. While you may think you are a defender of constitutional rights nationwide, in reality all you are being is inconsiderate.