In Defense of Free Speech

While Martin Luther King Jr. is hailed today as a leader of a justified movement for greater social equality, his reputation 50 years ago when he addressed the high school on topics such as race relations, inequality in schooling, and social unrest was not quite as dignified.

The latest Gallup measure taken in 1966 shows that only 32 percent of Americans had a positive perception of MLK and 63 percent had a negative one.

Despite the fact he held opinions that may have been deemed inflammatory or controversial at the time, Dr. King was still invited to speak. Across America today, however, the exercise of free speech has increasingly come under attack.

Many college campuses have become echo chambers for certain liberal opinions, suppressing speakers with different views.

One recent example comes from Middlebury College where conservative writer Charles Murray was prevented from speaking, and his left-leaning interviewer, Ms. Allison Stanger, was beaten to the point of being concussed. Mr. Murray’s opinions, especially on race, may certainly be considered repugnant by many, but they in no way justify the violence against him.

In addition, Mr. Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing political commentator was barred from speaking at the University of California, Berkeley in February 2017. He has taken many controversial stances, but it is still important to note that freedom of speech is not meant simply to protect views we agree with, but also those we vehemently oppose.

Without listening to those we may disagree with on many issues, it is impossible to find common ground on the issues where there may be some agreement or expose truly heinous ideas.

Another disturbing occurrence in regards to free speech has been President Trump’s call on the NFL to fire those kneeling during the National Anthem. Even if someone finds it personally disagreeable to protest in this manner, calling for players to be dismissed for exercising their First Amendment rights establishes a dangerous precedent for the nation in which the government can pressure private organizations to take action against those with whom they disagree.

Historically, the United States has always promoted and protected free speech, no matter how unpopular. Without free speech, our democracy cannot thrive because it takes away the ability to peacefully dissent.

There is little debate that hate speech is loathsome, and it is difficult to ignore those who espouse racist and ignorant rhetoric.

Nevertheless, as frustrating as it may be to hear these deplorable words, it is crucial to remember that these people have a right to hold and express these views—no matter how despicable they may be.

Free speech applies to both sides, and whether the opinion is popular or not does not factor into whether or not, legally, it can be expressed. That being said, any form of violence is inexcusable and has no legal basis.

It is important to keep in mind that laws against hate speech, essentially restricting free speech, can be a slippery slope and lead to government infringement on all forms of unpopular free speech.

Curbing free speech can be dangerous; giving the government one inch could lead to giving them one foot. Free speech is supposed to be contentious. In fact, democracy, at its core, is contentious—it’s about conflicting ideas coexisting with each other. Free speech is considered so essential to our democracy that the Supreme Court holds it in a preferred position and is reluctant to restrict it.

Back in 1967 when King  came to speak to the community, the supervising principal at the time, asked him to refrain from speaking about the Vietnam War; nevertheless, he persisted.

In the beginning of his speech, he mentioned the ungodly amount of money spent on an “ill-considered and unjust war.”

We can all learn a lesson from King here. Not only should we speak up for our beliefs, no matter how unpopular they may be, but we should also be open and willing to listen to other’s opinions, even if we may disagree with them.

In a highly polarized political climate, it is the least we can do for our democracy and the values we hold in such high esteem.

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