The Price of Free Speech

by Alexandra Diamond, Age 16
Submitting Teacher: Corinne Woodworth

To speak, one’s vocal cords must vibrate, the folds fluttering against each other 100 to 1000 times each second. The Broca’s area within the left hemisphere of every human brain must relay information to the vocal folds, which expand and contract at the speed of thought. The science behind speech, as complex as it is, can be understood. The implications of speech, however, is much harder to comprehend. These spoken words have killed, ruined reputations, incriminated, shattered families, and started wars. In the past, while one had the ability to say anything within the realm of thought, he or she could be punished by his or her government for saying something considered socially or politically unacceptable. Constitutional free speech was so revolutionary at the time of its creation because it gave United States citizens the liberty to speak openly without fear of government retribution. Centuries later, the initially clear waters of free speech have become muddy once more.

What was a Congressional issue has become a massive social issue. People are getting angry for feeling the social kickback of their words. They make statement after charged statement, and are shocked when others fire back with opposing arguments. What many people misunderstand is that being shouted at on Twitter for being racist is not a suppression of their right to free speech. Just as a person is justified in raving about how horrendous the color blue is, another person can argue the opposite just as vehemently without breaching the First Amendment.

Take, for example, a pair of house-flipping twins who were sour about feeling the burn of their opinionated comments. The Benham brothers were fired from their HGTV show for making homophobic statements during a prayer rally. During an interview with John Stossel, the brothers displayed frustration with being fired and subsequently slandered for their words. HGTV was justified in firing the brothers -- just as the brothers had the right to make the comments they did under the First Amendment, HGTV had the right to let them go. However, in the following interview, author Mark Steyn argues that businesses shouldn’t fire people for what they say because it will further confine public expression.

This is untrue.

The public still has the right to express any opinion it wishes, but it must be prepared for retaliation. Just as the Benham brothers had the right to make the comments they did, HGTV and other critics had the right to respond. The brothers explain how they exploited the same right they were complaining about previously. They used their right to free speech to speak out against what happened to them, using the media to spread their story and gain support. SunTrust, the company that hires the brothers, was bombarded by the same type of messages that got tech employee Pax Dickinson fired for his offensive jokes. In the Benhams’ case, this was displayed as a success for free speech; a victory against their aggressors. In Dickinson’s case, the public using social media to speak out against his rude jokes is portrayed as oppressive. Freedom of speech protects every American citizen’s opinions and ideas from government intervention, however it does not shield one’s opinion from others’ responses.

Unfortunately, in today’s society, the repercussions for certain types of speech can prove too great. In these cases, while no legal stipulations exist, freedom of speech is suppressed by fear of social consequence. For example, teachers must be just as cautious about making opinionated comments outside the classroom as inside the classroom, due to the threat of termination. In similar fashion to the Benham brothers’ release from HGTV, Virginia Tech professor Steven Salaita was denied a teaching opportunity at the University of Illinois because of his politically charged tweets regarding the issues between Israel and Palestine. The university dismissed him, describing his comments as “disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice”. In our current culture, universities must also be careful about what they express and what they allow their teachers to say and do because of the threat that wealthy donors could withdraw funding. The university claimed that the dismissal was a result of the comments themselves, while in reality, rich contributors and powerful alumni had threatened the school, saying that funding would cease unless Salaita’s offer for a faculty position was withdrawn. The social tolls of taking advantage of the right to free speech can be so damaging that many would rather keep quiet.

Beyond the social, there can be actual physical consequences of freedom of expression. In some cases it has proven deadly. The French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, notorious for its satirical and offensive cartoons depicting Mohammed, was attacked by radical Islamic groups and twelve people were killed. As a result of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, many U.S. publications refuse to print certain incendiary content, including The New York Times, which declared it wouldn’t publish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Mohammed. These decisions were made out of fear of becoming the next target of radicalized groups such as ISIS, which respond to offense with brutal violence.

In these cases and many others, free speech is being suppressed by nothing other than fear. University teachers can rant all they want about political issues on Facebook, but they refrain from doing so for fear of losing their jobs. Universities can hire whomever they wish, regardless of his or her opinions, but they refrain from doing so for fear of losing their donors. Writers and publishers of news sources are free to print cartoons offending every religion on the planet, but they refrain from doing so for fear of losing their lives. The honesty and transparency entailed in the First Amendment is being clouded and obstructed by fear. What is detrimental to our free society is not the stating of unpopular opinions, but rather overreaction to such opinions. To continue progressing as a civilized society, we must renew the value of exchanging ideas and opinions in a respectful and tolerant way.