Free to offend
“I have the right to write whatever I want. And it’s equaled by a right just as powerful: the right not to read it. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend people.” –Brad Thor, American thriller writer.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental and powerful guarantee. It separates nations like the United States with its protections from those nations that limit, outlaw and compel the speech of their citizens. Still, evolution has not reached the point where we are unoffended by hurtful language, where we can chalk all tactlessness up to freedom of speech. It is dangerous to consider freedom to offend as fundamental as freedom of speech. It is dangerous when people begin to feel entitled to their epithets. This is not to say that freedom of speech must be re-examined or rearticulated, but, in practice, is there a way in which we can balance free speech with consideration and compassion?
Much like violating individuals’ rights to speak freely, compelled speech restricts individuals and organizations from expressing their own opinions and pushes them to present an exterior which often does not line up with their own values. Consider the case of Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc. that came before the Supreme Court in 2013. The case overturned a measure, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003, which required that private groups receiving federal government funds to fight AIDS and other diseases globally have “a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.”
At first brush, this seems positive. Sex trafficking is monstrous. Prostitution, even in those countries in which it is legal, often creates an environment in which sex trafficking is possible and sex workers are marginalized. But presenting this single opinion limits private groups in the ways in which they work with sex workers requiring medical treatment. A group which does not condemn the livelihood of the people it works to support is much more effective than one which does.
The issue of free speech, however, goes beyond the practicality of the law. The Supreme Court overturned the law in this case, citing that the First Amendment guarantees the government cannot force its citizens to profess specific opinions. Placing conditions on the receipt of federal funding is standard. Normally when a group receiving funding finds those conditions prohibitive, they are just expected to decline funding. Yet, the Supreme Court also recognized precedent that dictates the U.S. government “may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected ... freedom of speech even if he has no entitlement to that benefit.”
To me, this is a clear and compelling argument for the First Amendment. It is cases like these for which the First Amendment was crafted: to protect the speech of the people even when they do not match the opinion of the government. But it seems as though most discussion on freedom of speech is prompted by unpleasant or offensive viewpoints and governments and communities questioning the individual’s right to say such things.
In 1984, Ray Luc Levasseur was arrested for his involvement with the United Freedom Front, a domestic terrorist organization responsible for targeting companies which supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and orchestrating multiple robberies and bombings. After being released from prison in 2004, Levasseur was invited to speak at a forum on his trial at the University of Massachusetts. The event prompted a heated response from the university and the local community. (Think the Duke response to Charles Murray, but magnified.) Local Police Chief Robert P. Frydryk asserted that, “the organizers are out of touch with reality. It’s shameful that they use their position as educators to turn terrorists into folk heroes.”
Ultimately, the talk was canceled. Its organizers questioned the glorification conferred upon the actions of the United Freedom Front and balked to present Levasseur as a valid academic. This case is not a clear violation—our freedom of speech does not guarantee us podiums at universities from which to lecture. This was a question of “should we?” rather than “must we?” However, it still merits consideration.
If Levasseur’s presence would have presented a threat, either from the mere logistics of hosting him or if his speech sought to incite violence, then I would argue the correct call was made. But Levasseur asserted that his speech would not be violent. There didn’t seem to be a threat of violence by inviting him. Losing his presence meant losing a wholly different perspective on an academic panel designed to present all sides of his trial. Presenting a radically different perspective might just have enough academic value to justify giving the podium to a man with an unpleasant past and undesirable opinions.
So much of what is said is unsavory. Racist and sexist drivel fuels anonymous gossip boards like CollegiateACB. People are unkindly honest to friends, family and acquaintances. Speech which incites violence and speech which reveals private information without basis or permission is unacceptable. But if majority opinion was enough to label certain statements prohibited, we would be in a very different university, and, in fact, a very different country, today. Sure, I believe that some speech should not exist. And yes, some is not used in ways anybody would consider positive. But when it comes down to it, there is a burden on us to determine when things merit ignoring. Freedom of speech is powerful, and engaging in dialogue is often productive. But just because someone has found himself or herself a soapbox does not mean you are obligated to listen. Speech is a right, but we must affirm that dialogue is a privilege.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Tuesday. Send Lydia a message on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.