[the_ad_placement id=”banner-right-placement”]

[the_ad_placement id=”banner-left-placement”]

Can we talk?

When I attended California State University, Northridge in the early 80s, the World Wide Web hadn’t yet been invented. Handheld mobile phones were enormous and heavy as a brick. Free TV was quickly giving way to a vast array of pay-cable channels and the established Big Three networks no longer had a monopoly on content; the explosion of new channels in the 1980s meant a need for programs to fill them.

There was a wealth of material all over the dial for selective viewers, and that also meant content was under more scrutiny than ever before for “appropriateness” and subject to censorship to “protect” the public.

The idea of free speech, open dialogue, and varied opinion was held sacrosanct on most college campuses back in the day. It didn’t matter which political party one was invested in. Everyone could have a say on any subject with the expectation that even if others disagreed with you, your right to have an opinion would normally be cherished.

College provided an opportunity to leave the familiar behind and to engage in competing ideas with people from varied backgrounds with dissimilar experiences. Terms like “micro-aggression” and “triggered” hadn’t found their way into the lexicon.

Students and faculty alike felt secure knowing that viewpoints could be expressed without causing hysteria, mass protests or the expectation of being beaten into intellectual submission.

It seemed to me that conservative or liberal thought was not only allowed but also encouraged by faculty and the student body alike. Disagreements were fashioned to present better arguments, not louder ones. Respectful debate was in style.

Although I would say I am mostly middle-of-the-road politically, in recent years I’ve looked askew at a few of my otherwise politically like-minded brethren, who are apparently unaccustomed to having their own cherished philosophies challenged, and therefore believe — mistakenly in my estimation — that speech is not protected when it offends, angers, or causes feelings of discomfort. That is, unless their speech angers or offends — then of course it’s protected speech.

As technology undergoes relentless modernization and new modes of expression are established like social media, the definition of what constitutes protected speech remains contentious in some quarters — as it does today in many higher institutions of learning, where more than ever before speech codes are designed to regulate or prohibit expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large.

I stand baffled over how many apologists stand up for stifling speech, both on the right and left of the political spectrum. A number of times I have found myself disagreeing with those who have argued that speech isn’t protected if it’s offensive or deemed hateful.

The unintended consequence of such attempts to limit speech could easily backfire. After all, one person’s micro-aggression may be another’s sincere belief.

If a person makes a comment that I find disagreeable in some way, have they now committed a micro-aggression directed towards me? By the rules of fair play, should I then insist that a “thought infraction” has transpired, call the Thought Police and have the comment banned?

In fact, The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled thathate speech is legally protectedfreespeechunder theFirst Amendment — even on college campuses.

Here’s the rub — distinguishing between hate speech that is mean-spirited and divisive, often defined as a verbal attack on a person or a group on the basis of protected attributes such as race, religion, ethnic and national origin, disability, sexual orientation or gender — and hate speech that is an incitement to violence, defined as encouraging, instigating, or threatening so as to cause another to commit acrime (already on the books as illegal) are two entirely different animals.

Under the “Imminent Lawless Action”test (Brandenburg v. Ohio), which is used by the Supreme Court to decide the limits on which speech is protected, the First Amendment does not protect speech if the speaker “intends toincitea violation of the law that is both imminent and likely.”

According to Wikipedia and other online sources, categories ofspeechthat are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include “child pornography, speech integral to illegal or fraudulent conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, the use of “fighting words,” which is speech that is used to inflame another and that will likely incite physical retaliation, intention to elicit panic without true cause (yelling fire in a crowded theater when no such fire exists), and threats that are considered an act of coercion that can be prosecuted under the law,” along with a few other examples like libel and slander.

Although the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” such protections are not extended in a legal sense to other entities such as business operations or at private meetings or community events sponsored by private organizations. And apparently is unenforceable on college campuses.

Constitutionalcenter.org posts: “The answer to the suppression of almost any speech cannot be to limit expression but to discuss it, not to bar offensive speech but to answer it.” In other words, the remedy to unpleasant speech is not enforced silence but to apply more speech.

The topic of free speech and its significant place in the U.S. Constitution has always been of utmost interest to me, especially as a journalist, as it should also be to politicians on both sides of the aisle and the general public.

The potential danger is that some protests on speech ignore history, chill artistic expression and could limit diversity in thought.

[the_ad_placement id=”banner-left-placement”]