Students Learn About Free Speech

This speech is an excellent summary, in my mind, of what is going on today among many young people, who lack respect for free speech. Throughout our long history there have been regular attacks on the First Amendment protection of speech, from the Alien and Sedition Acts to “free speech zones” that limit free speech to certain areas (usually as far away as possible from the intended targets of the speech).

Today, however, it is widely held among young people, perhaps especially on college campuses, that offensive speech or hate speech is not protected, and ought not be protected. Of course, this means that no speech is protected, for all speech has the potential to offend. In fact, the statement, “Offensive speech is not and ought not be protected by the First Amendment,” would likely not be protected by the First Amendment, for the statement is offensive to most free speech advocates, strict constitutionalists, and libertarians.

Jordan Peterson, the now internationally famous clinical psychologist and university professor who caused all sorts of hyperventilating when he refused to comply with the Canadian government’s attempt to impose how pronouns were to be employed, was asked once, “Why should your right to free speech trump a trans person’s [really, anyone’s] right not to be offended?” He replied, “Because in order to be able to think, you have risk being offensive.”

The question is based on a false premise: In fact, there is no right not to be offended. How could such a “right” be protected? Offense, after all, isn’t really given, but taken. What offends one person often has no effect at all on another, even another who may possess the characteristic the supposedly offensive statement is intended to offend against. Offense is entirely subjective. Yes, there are societal norms and mores that offer a measure of protection from those who would offend against those norms and mores. But, it is societal pressure that protects us, not the law. When the actress Kathy Griffin held up a fake head of Donald Trump, covered in faux blood, suggestive of the beheading of the president, she was castigated by honorable people of all political persuasions. She crossed a line, and was called out on it. But, she wasn’t arrested or fined or imprisoned by the government. I have a reasonable expectation of not being offended by a humorless comedienne making light of the assassination of a president, based on the shared norms and mores of our culture. I don’t have a Constitutional right or legal right not to be offended but such.

But, Peterson is correct. In order to think (and by “think” I take it that Peterson means to engage in society’s conversation, especially about important matters, and not simply what you hold and keep in your own head), we have to risk given offense, because otherwise thoughts are never shared, ideas are never batted around, and meaningful decisions can never be made. But, this is precisely what opponents of free speech want. They want to stop people from thinking for themselves, they want to stop the conversation, and require that everyone embrace only what they are told they must think by the so-called elites, who always have a clever way of self-entitling themselves as elites. The club they use to enforce their goal is the threat of being accused of committing the great sin of non-thinking ideologues: “You have offended me!”

So, speak freely and speak with passion. Risk offending someone. In fact, risk offending lots of people. Only in doing so can we be assured that civilization has any hope of progressing to the point where those who think differently are able to engage in meaningful, respectful conversation with each other and, by such conversation, make progress toward a future that is brighter for everyone.

 

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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