Art by Sybil Zhang
The fact is not lost on most people that this is a time of great national division. The year has seen the election of a controversial president, the creation of movements both resisting and supporting him and a renewed debate over the importance of free speech in America.
While some view free speech as enabling divisive and hateful rhetoric, free speech, which is the uninhibited exchange of ideas without legal repercussions, is indeed the best means of convincing people of its unreasonableness by creating dialogue. It is for this reason that free speech is more important than ever today.
Some allege that free speech “legitimizes” speech which is harmful to the most underprivileged in society. On the contrary, free speech is an indispensable part of asserting the rights of the most vulnerable.
“All across the segregated South, many thousands of Black Americans went to jail protesting segregation — and many of those who went to prison did so on the grounds that they were violating injunctions against protesting and assorted other unconstitutional restrictions on speech,” according to Jay Stanley’s article “Civil Rights Movement is a Reminder That Free Speech is There to Protect the Weak,” published May 26, 2017 for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The example of the Civil Rights Movement demonstrates the importance of free speech as a means of giving every citizen an equal voice, even if their opinion is inconvenient. African-Americans throughout the country used their freedom of speech — which was itself often abridged through intimidation — as a means of affirming their right to equality before the law, resulting in expansion of civil and voting rights.
When the free speech of people with viewpoints which even moderately veer off the course of accepted opinion is thwarted, it does not cause them to adjust their views. Rather, it only drives them further from the ideological center and towards fringe viewpoints.
This is due to Labeling Theory, which states that when a certain label is applied to an individual, that individual’s actions will begin to reflect that label or classification. When all dissenting opinions are labeled fascist or communistic in nature, adherents to these opinions begin to see themselves as such, and to subscribe to the shibboleths of extremist movements.
Keeping this in mind, it is necessary to view free speech not as the source for our country’s problems but instead as a sort of panacea for the divisions sweeping our society. Free speech has the unique ability to dissect discriminatory or exclusivist statements and allow people to see the illogicality of these statements for themselves.
If these opinions are merely shut out, they are inadvertently allowed to fester. “The backlash to political correctness is now much broader — everything is permitted, nothing is wrong,” according to Whet Moser’s article, “The Devolution of the Political Correctness Backlash,” published Sept. 8, 2016 in Chicago Magazine. Censoring free speech thus causes opinions that otherwise would be discounted as illogical to gain traction.
America’s greatness lies in its diversity — of races, creeds, and opinions alike. Free speech gives a voice to the voiceless and enables each citizen to be heard.
And there is nothing more American than that.
Follow Jake Amble on Twitter:@JakeAmble1