Freedom of speech not conditional

By Tim Nerozzi / Columnist

It could be a relative, a politically misinformed friend or perhaps even a stranger ranting on the street. Someone says something so ignorant, so grossly inaccurate or so outright offensive, that you feel they shouldn’t be allowed to speak. Your blood boils, and all you can think is, “Someone needs to shut this guy up.”

It’s an experience we all have in the face of offensive or disruptive speech. However, prior to a few weeks ago, I would’ve thought that it was a tiny minority that wanted to make silencing unpopular opinions a legal reality.

Last month, the Pew Research Center released a study concluding that “American Millennials are far more likely than older generations to say the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups.”

With a staggering 40 percent of these Millennials in favor of government regulation of speech, I feel a little winded. Where did we, as a generation, lose touch with our individual rights and embrace governmental management of even our own expressions of thoughts and words?

Currently, as a U.S. citizen, you are legally allowed to stand on the corner of Forbes and Bigelow and tell passersby that any and all Mexicans are filthy mongrels and that we should deport them, regardless of citizenship status, immediately.

You run the risk of waking up in a hospital, but belligerent speech is your right. It would fly in the face of our country’s values if the government were to tell you that you aren’t allowed to make these public statements.

It’s not a matter of whether people approve or agree with your backwards thinking. Freedom of speech is not a concept that can have “if” or “but” attached to it. Freedom inherently means existence without restraints, and the virtue of speech without obstruction from the government has made America a melting pot of conflicting ideas and mantras.

You are allowed to say hateful, vitriolic words. You can burn a cross, as determined in Brandenburg vs. Ohio, tear up a Quran, host a Nazi rally or advocate for genocide. On the other hand, you are allowed a platform for social action, protected by law. The Patriot Guard Riders are free to drown out the Westboro Baptist Church at their protests at soldiers’ funerals. It’s a two-way street.

You are especially protected in political speech, no matter the content. Carry a sign with Obama dressed as Hitler on it, or paint a picture of George W. Bush as a monkey. Legally, you’re in the clear, and I’d be upset if you weren’t.

This is not to say that you have the right to be heard. Nor do you have legal protection from resulting name-calling, protest or equally venomous speech in response. Freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism or heckling.

One would think  that these people ask for the death of the first amendment in order to protect the targets of hate speech. It’s a noble, yet extremely counter-productive venture.

Here in America, we respect individual actions and choices. We all should have the right to answer the feelings in our own hearts and minds, no matter how despicable or condemnable our feelings are. After all, what better course of action is there when dealing with an ignorant individual than to let them speak freely?

Silence is not agreement.

If someone tries to tell you that the Holocaust didn’t occur, what good comes from asking the government to order them mute? If someone tries to claim racial or religious supremacy, what good is it to hide those thoughts from the public? You haven’t solved the problems, you’ve only swept them under the rug. Silence is not agreement.

You might find this a scary idea. Feelings get hurt. Americans are offended and outraged daily with public speeches and online diatribes of every kind. Unfortunately, no one in this world can walk through life without having their sensibilities challenged.

These people don’t just need to be allowed to say their piece, but they ought to receive special protection. Let people scream their prejudices and vices for all the world to hear. Personally, I want to know who these people are and have a better understanding of who I want to make friends with and whose backwards views I want to challenge.

Put your facts and observations on the same table, and have faith that your reasoning is sound. By censoring the ignorant, you separate them, insulate  them from enlightening discussion and deprive potential witnesses the debunking of toxic ideas. When you regulate an idea, you don’t destroy or fix it — instead, you push it aside.

We should push back against offensive free speech with logical, thought-provoking free speech of our own: rehabilitation, not isolation. This is the essence of free speech and the reason that it has flourished and remains preserved in our modern America. Freedom of speech is not an ally of racism, sexism, homophobia or religious intolerance. It is their sworn enemy.

There is no government panel in your mind. There is no approval process for your lips to form words. Who is the government to tell us what we can and cannot say? What person — living or dead — could you possibly trust to know the line between offensive and non-offensive speech? What politician do you feel should be the one to determine what can and cannot come out of your mouth?

I cannot think of a single person, politician or not, who can speak for all the nation about offensive speech or moral policy making, and I expect that I’m not alone.

The American people, not the Federal government, must deal with the sludge that the Ku Klux Klan and Westboro Baptist Church spews.We self-govern the zeitgeist of our own culture. There is not, will never and should never be a limit on the ideas we can put forth.

Frankly, I’m offended that so many people are speaking about banning my freedom of speech — but hey, I guess it’s their right.

Timothy primarily writes on free speech and media culture for The Pitt News.

Write to him at [email protected]