Speak Freely: Hate Speech May Be the Death of Free Speech

Updated on October 4, 2017
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My one and only goal in writing is to increase the likelihood of intellectual thought coupled with critical examinations of societal trends.

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Controversy and tragedy are in the air in lieu of the many social issues that have been brought to the forefront within the United States. As the members of football teams take a knee during the National anthem and disenfranchised protestors run rough shot on college campuses we see that at the center of the recent events is a question that must be answered: how free are we to speak. It is a complex question that brings us to the timeless discussion regarding the freedom of expression and the freedom of speech. Before discussing the relation between freedom of speech and recent events, we need to examine what a freedom actually is in regard to our society and whether or not a freedom is immortal or subject to social context.

The freedom of speech has been a proudly sported aspect of American culture since the countries inception. Philosophically, a freedom can be seen as an allowance of action. A freedom can also be seen as a right that protects individuals who wish to commit a specific action. A freedom (or right) cannot be regulated because that then prevents it from truly being free. This rule is dependent upon the complexity of the freedom as it is defined. To say “I have the right to keep and carry firearms” is much more complex than “I have the freedom to express my opinion”. The key difference is actually in the right as it is written.

The freedom to keep and own firearms is a right. However, due to changes in technology and weapon systems we find ourselves in place in which we must regulate specific weapons for the safety of society. Speech is a single action. It is far less tangible and is required for the expression of thought. The difference lies between the rights to a physical object and the right to commit an action. Though I do want the right to have a pistol, I see reason as to why I myself or anyone outside of a military capacity would need a 249 squad automatic weapon. The regulation of firearms without removing the right to own firearms is much easier to accept than the regulation of speech or expression. This illustration does not preclude the fact that societal trends play a very large role in how we adhere to these rights.

As seen with any society, there are always moral codes or laws. These moral codes or laws are subject to change throughout societal shifts in opinion. This is why formal laws and rights, though subject to continuous review, exist in an effort to keep a level of permanence with regard to the specific rights individuals have. There are cases in which formal laws have been changed due to advancements in societal morality. An example can be seen in the tearing down of the infamous Jim Crow laws. Such laws were changed due to the societal realization regarding the inequality that these laws created. A right or freedom is much different than a local, state or even federal law. A right or freedom does not give allowance to crime but instead protects an individual from being punished for exercising a freedom. No form of speech can be considered punishable if all speech is to truly be free. If this is all true then how do we asses our current society's views on freedom of speech?

With the recent events taking place on college campuses and the classification of hate speech there is a serious threat to the freedom of speech as a right. The threat does not lie within the speech itself or the fact that it is considered to be hate speech. Separating one’s self from negative influences is always a valid option and everyone has the right to choose what information they want to be influenced by or experience. It is in the attempts to stifle such speech that creates the conflict between true freedom of speech and regulated speech.

If we look at the Freedom of Speech Event at U.C. Berkley that was no more than a few weeks ago, we are able to get a glimpse of what the classification of hate speech has meant for the right to the freedom of speech. The campus was forced to spend a great deal on security in order to prevent protestors from stopping the event. Now, the key word here is "stopping" because that word illustrates that the goal of the protest was not argue or express their opinion, but to actually prevent an opposing view point from speaking. Such protests have been seen across the country in which cries of stopping hate speech have been heard while violence between opposing sides breaks out into the streets and on to our televisions. These attempts to regulate speech on college campuses (which are supposed to be the safest place to share free thoughts) can be seen as the first steps toward regulating speech which would then lead to the death of a well pronounced freedom and replace it with a regulation.

I understand that there are many individuals that do not spend their time on college campuses and do not follow events that occur in academia. With that in mind, I am going to offer another example that is a bit closer to home for everyone. Just after the horrific shooting of Dallas police officers in 2016, the Dallas Cowboys decided to pay tribute by creating a decal that read "Arm in Arm" and wore it on their helmets for one practice in solidarity of the lives lost. While the intention was to wear the decals for the full season, the NFL denied their request due to the league’s rules regarding team uniformity. While this may be seen as harsh, in some ways in does actually support the idea that NFL must be uniform in order to maintain their standard. Moving forward into the recent events with team members kneeling during the National Anthem with no corrective actions being taken to adhere to league uniformity creates a conflict between these two events involving the freedom of expression.

If expressing solidarity for fallen officers on the field is considered to fall short of NFL uniform guidelines, then why is the physical action of kneeling during the National Anthem not also considered a lack of uniformity? To make it clear, we are examining the freedom of expression in both situations and comparing their outcomes. We see that in one case, the "Arm in Arm" decal, the freedom of expression was understandably regulated due to rules that had been in place for quite a few years before the event. In the case of whole teams kneeling before a ceremony, there were no calls for uniformity or regulation. Both events were forms of speech, but both were not allowed to be displayed.

This creates a serious problem for the freedom of speech as a right because we are now faced to face with questions that must be answered. Why was one form of speech allowed when another was prevented? Is a speech on specific topics valued less and deemed not allowed while others valued more as well as deemed permissible for public exposure? Can speech be considered free if we classify and discriminate against specific topics of speech? These are monumentally important questions that must be answered before we continue to passively regulate speech across the nation or we may find ourselves in a society that actively approves and disapproves of specific ideas or topics which would then be in direct opposition to the freedom of speech.

I have written about intellectual honesty in the past and its importance in society. Examining the recent events that have occurred and checking for intellectual consistence with our right to the freedom of speech is imperative in order for us to properly evaluate what steps need to be taken in effort to ensure that our freedom of speech is never regulated. We must remove ourselves from our own opinions regarding the NFL and politics and remember that if the right to speak freely is to truly exist, then we equal enforcement of protecting the freedom of speech must occur.


“The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.” ― Baruch Spinoza 1632 - 1677

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