The concept of free speech is essential to the fabric of American society. The Founding Fathers thought it to be so important that they made it their first order of business when they wrote the Bill of Rights, which they intended to be a growing catalogue of legally-defined human rights.
As such, one can say that there are few things more American than the sentiment expressed by author Evelyn Beatrice Hall more than a century ago: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
But Evelyn Beatrice Hall was British, and America is more complicated than it was in 1791.
The First Amendment is often cited to validate the belief that anyone can say anything they want, and to disagree means censorship and hate speech.
But what lengthy think pieces on hate speech do not seem to acknowledge is that free speech relies entirely on the concept of equity of opinion.
Disagreement is a necessary part of growing as a society. Not only is it inevitable with a country as large and diverse as ours, but it also exposes people to experiences that will grow their perspective.
Even if you do not agree with an opinion, it is important to acknowledge a person’s right to voice it and defend that right as something that expands the dialogue and increases people’s understanding of a topic.
Perhaps one of the biggest talking points around First Amendment rights in recent years is weighing the power of words with the right to use them. When At the Well Ministries came to campus earlier this month with anti-abortion pamphlets, which included graphic images of fetuses, some objected to the fact that people would be offended and upset at being confronted with the unsolicited images.
Others said that it was important for the college to provide an environment that fostered free discussion between opposing viewpoints and to not prioritize one voice over another. The organization defended its right to use graphic images because people being uncomfortable with seeing photographs of abortions validated their argument that abortion is wrong.
However, intentionally causing offense is difficult to defend as a facet of free speech. While it is important to validate the right of people to protest abortion and share their perspective, it is not equal to condoning the emotional distress their tactics would cause.
One of the largest complications in this is the fact that no one can define what does and does not cause emotional harm to another person. And while everyone has the right to be aware of and avoid things which cause them emotional distress, the fact still stands that, in many cases, there is much more on the line than simply being upset by the way someone chooses to communicate.
When venomous opinions that demean the humanity of a group are allowed to take root and be defended as an “equal opinion,” the inevitable ending is socially-accepted dehumanization. The rhetoric of dangerous speech has allowed people to spread misconceptions about minorities, with ThinkProgress.com’s “Hate Tracker” showing 261 hate crime incidents reported across the country since Nov. 9.
ThinkProgress has also directly linked 42 percent of these attacks to people who committed the crimes while vocally referencing President Donald Trump’s opinions, policies or election. Hate speech is a legal form of free speech up until it is backed with physical action, but it’s irresponsible not to acknowledge its power to poison a full and mutually beneficial dialogue between people.
The expression of all ideas, both popular and unpopular, is indivisible; if even one person is denied the right to speak, we all are. But while it is important to acknowledge the right of everyone to voice their opinion as an equal part of the dialogue which keeps our country inclusive of all viewpoints, it’s also important to understand the power of words.
It is our responsibility as citizens to listen equally to every opinion and understand how different perspectives can grow our understanding of a topic, while also analyzing the potential harm of those words. Otherwise, we are failing to use the privilege of free speech to its full potential.