Freedom of Speech: How Much is Too Much?


ONLINE_Freedom of Speech
(Jessica Hanley/ The Observer)

The right of freedom of speech has been the focal point of one of the most important and long-lasting debates in this country, and the rise of the internet and social media hasn’t done anything to deter the proliferation of this issue. While there are many who acknowledge the benefits granted to American citizens under the First Amendment, there are more still who believe that there is a metaphorical line that must not be crossed. These same people would claim that the right of freedom of speech has a limit that ends once a speaker’s words turn offensive or derogatory. Recent prominent examples of offensive opinions have fueled the fires of this discussion. The prime example of the very epitome of offensive behavior is the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a group of religious zealots with a trademark of actually protesting or declaring intent to protest the funerals of public figures such as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Nelson Mandela. In another example, a professor of Johns Hopkins University, Benjamin Carson, appeared on Fox News in April of 2013 and made a statement that equated advocates of same-sex marriage with those that promote bestiality and necrophilia, releasing a hailstorm of verbal backlash.

Yet, given all this, it is important to remember that the truth of the matter is that freedom of speech is not the same thing as freedom of acceptance. We aren’t obligated to do much more than acknowledge that these abhorrent opinions are allowed to be spoken, which means that we don’t need to agree with them, force ourselves to listen to them, or even allow them within the confines of private places.

I’m not saying that the Westboro Baptist Church represents anything remotely resembling true American or even Christian ideals. However, while there are laws against acts of discrimination and hate crimes, there is nothing that says that one cannot truly be, in their heart of hearts, a bigot, a racist, an ageist or anything of the kind. The only way to silence the voices of those like the WBC and Professor Carson would be to pass a law that only allows “kind words” to be used within the public spectrum, and to do so would be in itself a form of discrimination. It would also represent a level of governmental interference in the lives of individuals that not many would be happy to see and some might even describe as a kind of socialist behavior.

But while it may seem like the hateful bigots and racists have so much power due to the First Amendment to the extent that we cannot silence their disgusting opinions, it is also important to note that we have not exactly been taking this lying down, for we have often retaliated against these people using our own freedom of speech. The WBC, for instance, has been consistently demonized over the years as a result of its hateful behavior. Although it claims to be a Baptist church, it has been denounced by the major Baptist denominations,  the Baptist World Alliance and the Southern Baptist Convention. Professor Carson didn’t escape scot-free either, eventually being forced to withdraw as commencement speaker for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine due to a volley of negative reception from students.

And this is what I mean when I talk about freedom of speech not being the same thing as freedom of acceptance: the offensive criticisms that attack the accepted institutions and norms of our society are not inherently immune from having such criticism shot right back at them. In a way, this is a form of justice and equality for all who seek to benefit from the implementation of the First Amendment. Ultimately, it falls upon an individual who makes a statement to then accept and deal with the consequences of doing so.

Consider the example of Ann Coulter, a conservative social and political commenter known for “stirring the pot” on more than one occasion. Her comments are radically more heavy-handed and offensive than her fellow contemporaries; she has even gone so far as to describe President Barack Obama as a “retard.” In November of 2012, the Fordham University group known as the College Republicans had issued an invitation for Coulter to speak at Fordham, only to ultimately rescind the invitation after the incredibly poor reception from both students and Fordham’s President Rev. Joseph M. McShane S.J. While Coulter has the right to make the oftentimes ridiculous statements she is known for, it is also our right to criticize her for it, and it is her responsibility to stand by her words and accept the criticism that is directed towards her just as others must deal with the criticism she doles out.

It may seem ironic that Coulter was ultimately denied a chance to speak at Fordham while Peter Singer, a philosopher who has advocated for the killing of children with serious disabilities, was not. While Singer’s position appears abhorrent to many, it does strike a chord with certain others, proving that it can be defensible. Charles Camosy, a Fordham theologian, was the moderator at the event in which Singer spoke, and this is a man who has actively defended Singer’s work in the past. The problem many have with Singer speaking lies in his position, not in his deliverance. He doesn’t fall into the same category that Coulter does; taking an anti-Obama position is one thing, but calling him a “retard” is certainly, as Father McShane points out, “needlessly provocative.” It doesn’t mean she has any less of a right than Singer to retain the opinions she does, but her behavior certainly won’t make people be very receptive to her.

In Carson’s case and in Coulter’s, the consequence of their kind of hateful free speech is an incompatibility and negative reception from the universities of Johns Hopkins and Fordham, respectively. In the WBC’s case, it is a near-universal demonization and classification as a hate group, for, in this humble writer’s opinion, that is precisely what they are. In this day and age, we enjoy the power to speak our minds on the issues that concern us most, but we must be ready and willing to accept the consequences of doing so.