by Lucia Ruffolo
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (Constitution of the United States of America, 1789). The First Amendment is an important and distinct right Americans can boast about, be proud of, and celebrate. It is the very first amendment that appears in the Constitution–an aspect that makes America, America, even more so than fast food. The First Amendment is the very essence of our patriotism, our pride, and drives(delete) our pursuit of happiness. It was a national achievement that could be celebrated by anyone, even those who do not always agree on everything–or so it was thought. In recent years, specifically in 2016 and 2017, how can we decipher what “free speech” really entails?
To begin with, it is a well-known fact that “free speech” never really meant all speech. There are certain elements that fall into the category of speech that are not protected, including obscenity, threats, perjury, libel and slander, blackmail, child pornography, etc. Some of these elements are more well-defined than others, while some are slightly related. For instance, hate speech and censorship are constantly being questioned, defined, praised, or challenged by Americans daily. The issue of free speech and expression has been especially prevalent at college campuses. Political and social figures are invited on campuses to speak on specific issues or attend and speak at various events. In regards to inviting speakers that have certain political or social views, it may be controversial, unpopular and even considered harmful to students. This has led college students and school administrators to re-question and examine the rights granted by the First Amendment.
Famous conservative/libertarian speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, Charles Murray, and Gavin McInnes have either been heavily discouraged from speaking or been met with extreme protesting and/or rioting. The arguments for forbidding these individuals from speaking at college campuses is that they incite violence and hateful opinions regarding minorities, and therefore should be banned from speaking. This view coincides with the creation of “safe-spaces”, an environment created for college students in which theoretically a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm. Some argue that safe-spaces are beneficial; the Northwestern University president claims that “the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe.” Others, including the University of Chicago, claim that safe spaces shelter kids from reality and shield them from opposing political views. According to a 2016 Gallup Poll, 72 percent of college students believe that colleges should not be allowed to filter out certain political ideas or expressions. Even former President Obama has said that college is a time to expand students’ horizons and listen to people who they do not necessarily agree with. In the legal sense, colleges are permitted to turn away uninvited speakers from their campuses. However, if the speaker is invited by a club or other audience, the college has a responsibility to not interfere. It is also unconstitutional to ban certain speech just because some may find it offensive. A main instigator and challenger to free speech is Antifa, short for Anti-fascism, which is ironically fascist in their ways of fighting against “fascism”. Antifa members, known for their extreme far-left ideologies, often become violent–kicking, spitting, punching, and pepper-spraying people who they believe are champions of fascism, racism, and sexism, even if the view presented does not necessarily correlate with those things. While particular speakers may see some issues and the world itself differently than the members of this group, it is not fair to presumptuously assume that they must be hateful.
Another proponent of free-speech that has received speculation is the banning of certain books from libraries for inappropriate content. Some challenged books include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (for being “racially insensitive”), Catcher In The Rye ( for being “foul and negative”), and Beloved (for containing violent and sexual content). These books have been considered literary masterpieces for their reflections on the cultures of the time periods during which they were written. The thought of “banning” these important works of fiction is a hard concept for many to swallow, as the choice of banning a book based on a dislike of its content is ludicrous. Past court cases, like the 1982 case of Board of Education v. Pico, ruled in favor of the First Amendment, stating that the right to read is included within this amendment, and consequently a school cannot ban a book simply because it dislikes its content. Despite these past rulings, book banning still occurs (though not too frequently), often going unnoticed. Whether the reason is for containing violence, sexual content, homosexuality, or for being politically incorrect, books often find themselves quietly removed from a library’s shelf. It is estimated that for every book challenge that is reported, up to four or five books challenged go unreported.
Whether it is banning certain speakers or banning certain books, these problems regarding free speech are important issues that do affect the future of America. How can we work towards agreements and compromise if we refuse to allow everyone to share their opinions? How can we let our children’s minds expand and grow if we bar them from reading certain novels? The more that people refuse to leave their black and white world, the more that change will become less and less likely. However, the more we consider other people’s point of views, even the ones we strongly disagree with, the faster we can create a rich, diverse, and productive society that reflects an America we can love and be proud of.