By Anna Lee
“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.” -U.S. Constitution. Amendent I.
I’ve been thinking about freedom of speech a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I’m a university student, or maybe it’s due to the political climate. There was a case on my campus recently where a clothes vendor was selling t-shirts with the swastika: a sacred emblem of Hinduism, Buddhism, Janism and, more commonly known, the symbol for Hitler’s Nazi during WWII. Many students were incredibly offended, and deemed it hate speech.The vendor apologized and he was eventually asked to leave the campus.
This event got me thinking about the idea of free speech. I have friends who are Jewish whose relatives were directly impacted by the Holocaust. I also have friends who have the swastika symbol in their home due to their Buddhist beliefs, like a Christian family would hang a cross. As a non-Jewish, non-Buddhist, this question perplexed me. If everyone has a freedom of speech, then is hate speech that may bring pain and discrimination allowed in that realm? If the speech has been misrepresented and thwarted by the inevitable events in history, who is on the moral ground to say what is okay or not okay to be said?
While tossing that question in my mind, I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell. On the episode titled “The Road to Damascus,” Gladwell discusses a case in the 90’s when the CIA hired an ex-terrorist who, in his repentance of his past actions, acted as an informant. Due to their work, the CIA was able to capture notorious terrorists.
Then comes Tim Weiner, who was a New York Time writer at the time. He had been tipped off by various people in the CIA and the congress about the CIA’s hush-hush decision. Weiner then published an article in ‘95 about the ordeal. Shortly after publication, even though Weiner opted out of naming the terrorist group, the details were specific enough that ex-terrorist was discovered by his former group and was brutally murdered. Gladwell does a contemporary interview with various people involved in the scandal, and even with Weiner himself.. Although he was within his rights to publish whatever information he has obtained, he didn’t intend to publish information that would bring pain to others
The information we choose to disseminate has power that’s bigger than the mere words we say. Although I am still grappling with this idea, I feel that freedom of speech isn’t as free as we all like to idealize. Because if we really are thoughtful, responsible humans, we all carry a burden, and we all have a duty to express our thoughts carefully.
However, that doesn’t mean speech shouldn’t have the power to challenge. That is where the boundaries get so blurred, because there is a difference between a speech meant to hurt and a speech meant to defy. Everyone has an unique perspective regarding issues such as politics, ethics, etc. Instead of expressing speech that will bring suffering- like attacking or disrespecting one’s culture or identity- there should be a discussion that constructively challenges one another. As a bystander of that discussion, you can learn so much more, and can have the room to develop your opinions.
I am only a university student, and I have encountered situations that make me question the ideals of free speech because I was so personally entangled with it. Furthermore, I know that I will continue to struggle with a topic that is so deceptively simple yet complex. But I think in that struggle there is growth. For me, that’s good enough.