Thinking about what we mean and do, when we speak

March 26, 2015

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment 

Who would have thought that star Little Leaguer Mo'ne Davis could also throw a pretty good First Amendment "conceptual fastball" over the plate?

Bloomsburg University sophomore first baseman Joey Casselberry, the team's second-leading hitter this season, was tossed off the team by the public university for a tweet in which he called the 13-year-old Mo'ne a "slut" after reading that Disney was making a film about her Little League World Series experience.

The tweet went "viral" and Casselberry was reprimanded, later apologizing profusely. Davis and her coach called the Pennsylvania school's president to ask that the player be forgiven and reinstated. In the process, she offered words worth considering in an era of Twitter, Snapchat and "talk" sites like YikYak that spawn random — and sometimes embarrassing or defamatory — images or remarks.

In TV interviews, Davis first tossed a verbal curve ball, forgiving instead of attacking: "He made one dumb mistake. I'm sure he would go back and change it if he could. We all make mistakes and deserve to be forgiven. I hope you will give him a second chance."

And then she threw the free speech "heat," wisely counseling Casselberry and all of us that "sometimes you got to think about what you're doing before you do it."

No less an authority than famed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, in considering a case in 1927, said the nation's founders "believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth." But Brandeis went on to say, "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

Enter Barrister Mo'ne, arguing in favor of more speech and "the process of education," rather than embracing the idea of simply trying to silence the speaker.

One tweet does not directly equate to cyberbullying, that particularly pervasive and sometimes deadly form of online repetitive harassment. But another unlikely free speech counselor, Monica Lewinsky, recently spoke out about what she called a modern "culture of humiliation" and how to deal with it.

Lewinsky was the White House intern whose affair with President Bill Clinton spawned a tabloid frenzy in the late 1990s, one that presaged the online savagery she sees today. Breaking a decade-long public silence to speak out about the sometimes punishing power of words then and now, Lewinsky warned of "technologically enhanced shaming (that) is amplified, uncontained and permanently accessible. Millions of people can stab you with their words, and that's a lot of pain."

Lewinsky called on the public to force an end to an online chat and publishing marketplace where "public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry. ... The more shame, the more clicks. Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop."

By deciding to reenter the public square, Lewinsky — like Davis — has opted for speech-as-education, and a counterbalance to the speech they didn't like.

Granted, the kind of speech both Davis and Lewinsky dealt with was in the private sphere, and not the kind of government interference with free expression that is prohibited by the First Amendment. But as we have seen in attempts to create legal remedies for everything from "revenge porn" to violent imagery in video games to removing racist imagery from license plates, legislation or litigation often follows indignation.

There's that old rhyme: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." While that may no longer be as applicable in the Internet Age, let's also remember another old saying — advanced most lately by two least-expected First Amendment scholars:

"The antidote to speech I don't like is more speech, not less."

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org.

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