Undeterred by the silent protest, Pence continued his speech, saying to the graduates: “While this institution has maintained an atmosphere of civility and open debate, far too many campuses across America have become characterized by speech codes, safe spaces, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness ― all of which amounts to the suppression of free speech.”
This is a line of reasoning we’ve heard time and time again, mostly from those on the right. The pristine ideal of “free speech” is used to dismiss legitimate criticism of language and policies that harm marginalized communities. Figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Bill Maher have invoked the “free speech” argument when they’ve been called out, criticized, or boycotted for their rhetoric.
None of them, however, have actually had their speech curtailed. They have never been thrown in jail for things like inciting racist and sexist abuse against comedian Leslie Jones, or complaining about Jews in America, or suggesting Muslims are inherently violent. Indeed, it wasn’t until Yiannopoulos started speaking positively about pedophilia that he actually faced any tangible repercussions.
Perhaps to Pence, who has come under scrutiny in the past for his history of endorsing and enacting anti-LGBTQ policies, the students who booed and walked out during his speech were only proving his point: that we live in a society where political correctness (a phrase that’s often just coded language for “liberal oversensitivity”) is leading us to a future where young people balk at anyone who shares an opinion different than their own.
Is free speech the fault for hate speech
Well, it’s not that simple.
Contrary to popular belief, free speech, in the context of the Constitution, actually does have limits. The First Amendment does not protect speech that incites violence, fraud, or child pornography, or certain forms of obscenity. It puts limits and restrictions on slander, and intellectual property.
And while it protects criticism of the government (including the president), and also protects unpopular or potentially offensive political or ideological views, it doesn’t mean one can say or do anything they want without social repercussions.
In other words, free speech does not mean that people aren’t allowed to be offended by or disagree with what you say. Free speech is not an excuse to say racist, homophobic, sexist things. The Constitution may protect your right to say some of those things, but you are certainly not protected from being called out for doing so.
Beyond a seeming lack of understanding of the basic tenets of free speech, this line of critique also frames any identification of instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamaphobia, ableism and transphobia as threats to free speech itself. And the ultimate effect of this argument can be chilling.
The students who decided to publicly protest Pence for his views, many of whom identify as queer, have as much of a right to exercise “free speech” as Pence and his supporters. Safe spaces do not “suppress” anything ― they level the playing field in a landscape where so many of those who bemoan political correctness do so at the expense of already marginalized communities.
Of course, the conversation surrounding free speech is not a simple one. The difficulty of defining hate speech, for instance, has often come up in this ongoing debate, with some critics arguing that censorship is not the solution to offensive or hateful language that is constitutionally protected.
“There is no legal definition of hate speech that will withstand constitutional scrutiny,” Will Creeley, Senior Vice President of Legal and Public Advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told Think Progress in January 2016. “The Supreme Court has been clear on this for decades. And that is because of the inherently fluid, subjective boundaries of what would or would not constitute hate speech. One person’s hate speech is another person’s manifesto.”
The pristine ideal of ‘free speech’ is used to dismiss legitimate criticism of language and policies that harm marginalized communities.
So, OK, both sides of the aisle must contend with how to express themselves and have vigorous debates about difficult without being awful. But research has shown that those who defend their “right” to use racial slurs and racist hate speech often use free speech to do so. A 2017 study found that out of hundreds of participants, those with high levels of racial prejudice were much more concerned with upholding freedom of speech, but were also less likely to defend free speech in non-racial scenarios.
It’s certainly savvy to deflect the argument that what you are saying is offensive by zeroing in on a political ideal, free speech, that everyone can get behind. It’s ultimately just a rhetorical ploy to normalize ideas that oppress others. And complaining when those who are oppressed call out these ideas, as is their right, is another petty ploy.
What Pence and Yiannopoulos and Coulter and other right-wing provacateurs are really doing when they weaponize free speech against marginalized people is perverting the idea of free speech itself.
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Empathy Club is a charity organisation that aims to promote and build empathy! The money will,for example go to mental health for young people, and to prevent hate, bullying and racism. Empathy Club is registered and approved in norwegian register as a charity association, with full documentation. Read more
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The news today is characterized by negativity around humanity and its existence, evil and terrorism. About poor environmental management and new viruses, body pressure on our youth and overuse in the world. One reads that on the doomsday clock that is being adjusted closer to destruction, despite all of this actually being new and that the world in many ways is better than ever.
At Empathy Club we can be a counterweight to this. One can believe in humanity and the good in us. One can help spread a good message, given that the vast majority of this world actually agree with the basic good values of life. And we all have a responsibility for both our own lives and the society in which we live and, despite culture, skin discourse, religion, gender, layering, etc., can choose to be fellow human beings and show empathy for others.