P erhaps no liberty so resoundingly defines our Republic than that of free speech — a right so vital to our Founders that they enshrined it in the First Amendment to the Constitution. We take for granted that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Sadly, in the reactionary time in which we live, this fundamental freedom is very much at risk, and from forces that once held the same as inviolate.
Once fiercely defended in all but the most egregious of circumstances, free speech has become widely accepted by far too many as being conditional upon subjective interpretations of what speech is appropriate or non-offensive — a concept that flies directly in the face of the foundations of the First Amendment protection itself.
This is seen clearly in the daily debate of public discourse. Relatively new terms like “hate speech,” “trigger warnings” and “safe speech zones” represent just how far down this dangerous road our society has traveled.
In a painful twist of irony, those same segments of society who push for these subjective regulations of speech purport to be proponents of “tolerance,” while at the same time overtly seeking to censor expression.
Nowadays, rather than engaging in debate based upon logical merit, discourse as devolved into an alarming arena where a subjective offense results in not only entirely shutting down debate, but also a knee-jerk ad hominem attack on the person exercising his or her free speech. In a frenzy of over-generalized hyperbole, self-appointed speech police impugn the character of someone with whom they disagree, with a broad brush of unsubstantiated vitriol, while still others offer “safe spaces” to protect people from speech which makes them feel uncomfortable.
Our family recently experienced the danger posed by a segment of society that is hyper-fragile yet simultaneously emboldened by the anonymity provided by digital media.
During the 2016 election, my newly-18-year-old child engaged in an earnest effort to fully inform her soon-to-be first vote. She observed a group of individuals online berating an artist and demanding that the artist take down her art, which consisted of photographs of a model representing the beauty of cultures across the world.
My daughter spoke up for the artist (who lived states away, and whom she had never met) and was instantly subjected to hateful threats unparalleled by anything I had seen before. They likewise demanded that my daughter stop defending the artist and immediately take down any supportive posts.
When my daughter persisted in saying no one had done anything wrong, one individual — who lived across the country — tracked down my daughter here in Union County, found out where she worked and reached out to her boss, demanding that she be fired for her political beliefs and no longer be allowed to work around children. My daughter’s boss called her in and insisted that she remove all references to her place of employment on social media. It was shocking to observe digital bullying leap off of the screen and into her real life. And for what? For my daughter using her freedom of speech to appropriately speak up for another woman who was being viciously berated for using her freedom of expression.
This great country of ours was founded upon the concept of a “free marketplace of ideas.”
The free exercise of speech in public discourse is absolutely vital to a fully functioning free society, and artificial, subjective shackles upon expression serve only to reduce our liberty, ultimately hurting every man, woman and child, and our nation as a whole. Governmental power derives only by the exercise of coercion, and liberties, once lost, slip into the pages of history without further struggle to reinstate them.
Our country is stronger than this newfound fragility imposed by the minority. Let’s remember that and speak our minds with respect, while fully allowing others the same right.