Celebrate 'Free Speech Week': Speak up, speak out!

October 23, 2015

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

It's Free Speech Week 2015 — and a major debate over free speech has just broken out.

Thanks to the First Amendment, we are free to compliment, cajole, deny or decry. And if you're looking for something immediate that calls out for more free and unfettered discussion, join this newest national debate over anonymous speech on the Web.

On Wednesday, a coalition of women's and civil rights groups announced a campaign to pressure colleges, through the U.S. Department of Education, to go on the offensive — pardon that reference — against anonymous social media applications like Yik Yak, which allows students to send social media messages within a specific university's virtual community.

These groups asked the U.S. Education of Department to treat colleges' failure to monitor anonymous social media comments, ranging from threats of rape and murder to insults using racial slurs or simply uncomplimentary references, as a violation of federal civil rights laws.

The groups' letter to the department's Office of Civil Right cites a number of examples, including "incidents at the University of Mary Washington, where female students were threatened with rape, murder and other abuse via Yik Yak, and at Clemson University where racially abusive Yaks appeared after a student march protesting the failure to indict the police officer responsible for the death of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri."

Absent the kind of directed, viable and proximate conditions required for a criminal charge, the examples raise concerns over atmospherics and ideas expressed on campuses — areas which traditionally gain the highest levels of First Amendment protections.

In fact, the coalition is critical of college administrators who it says cite "vague First Amendment concerns" in refusing to squelch Yik Yak and its kin. It calls on federal officials to mandate that universities use campus disciplinary powers, employ technological tools to block certain social media sites, ban the use of campus wi-fi to make objectionable posts, and conduct 24-7 monitoring of social media to spot the errant postings. It also asks for counseling for students traumatized by such online posts.

The groups have a worthy goal: to combat threats of violence and assault that terrorize a perceived victim. The pressing questions — particularly poignant during Free Speech Week, which this year is Oct. 19-25 — are what kind of speech rises to that level? And how do responsible tactics against such threats avoid becoming political correctness run amok and a latter-day, academic version of witch hunts?

Such questions are far from "vague concerns" over a core freedom. And, the "Yik Yak letter" is not the only arena in which we are debating old standards about free expression.

Various economic interests have pressed state legislators to consider or enact laws that aim to prevent activists from gathering information on animal cruelty or evidence that environmental laws are being ignored — attempting to use such so-called "ag-gag" statutes and claims of economic harm to silence those who would hold violators accountable in courts of law or the court of public opinion.

New laws citing privacy and property rights would limit the use and very presence of drones. And concerns over misuse of videos taken from body cameras worn by officers are stoking yet another area of concern in what once was seen as a positive means to empower citizens to speak out on police abuses.

But increasingly it's college campuses — just a generation ago, the bastion of efforts aimed at tearing down the power of administrators to control student expression — at the forefront of the free speech fight.

Critics worry about overzealous requirements for so-called "trigger warning" of classroom topics that might possibly upset or insult someone or bans on speech that sometime offend even a single person that could gut academic freedom. Professors and administrators are labeled as racist or sexist over perceived "microagressions" — words or phrases linked to negative or disturbing meanings, far from the long-held legal standards of a "true threat," but simply considered to be "unwelcome."

According to figures compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), at least 240 campaigns have been conducted in little more than a decade at U.S. universities to prevent speakers from appearing on campuses simply because some students or faculty members find the speakers' views objectionable. College news outlets have been attacked because of satirical cartoons and clearly labeled op-ed pieces, all too often simply for expressing opinions some students found unsettling.

And then there's an even a more subtle threat to the Web's promise of a utopia for free speech. Just a few "clicks" can ensure one only sees sites that reinforce already-held views or limits social media contact only to those already in agreement.

Eliminating the serendipity of discovering other viewpoints or the intellectual challenge of confronting persuasive views that differ from our own drains both the meaning and value of free speech.

We've spent decades determining the legal stands for threatening speech, which includes requirements for immediacy and potential.

There's no question that some ideas are repellent and frightening. Changing public opinion about those ideas is harder and takes more time than changing laws in an attempt to eliminate them. But the counter to speech we don't like — or even speech we feel is detrimental to many — should be more speech, not less.

The value of free speech rests with reasoned response to the discord of differing views. America's founders reasoned that ultimately, decisions and attitudes for the public good come from vigorous public debate.

History is replete with the failure to stop ideas by silencing a speaker. A nation rooted in dissent should not use the power of government to tell its citizens, colleges or even childish and juvenile websites to be silent in the name of comfort or a "vague notion" of making us safer by simply by not hearing or posting that which offends.

So speak up, speak out: It's Free Speech Week.

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. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac

For more information on Free Speech Week: @FreeSpeechWeek#FreedomSpeaks.

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