The beauty of free speech
Louis Bertolotti | Wednesday, October 28, 2015
In response to my last column, associate professor of the romance languages and literatures department, Ben Heller, wrote a Letter to the Editor chiding The Observer for “unconscionably” publishing the piece. I, however, believe that it is “unconscionable” that he would even suggest this and find it insulting to our beautiful democracy which he claims to hold so dearly.
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States avows that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or the press.” This declaration of right was put before all others for a reason. Without free speech, America as we know her today could not exist.
Put simply, democracy could not survive without the freedom of speech. The idea of democracy is based upon the notion that political differences can be solved by the ballot rather than the bullet. While seemingly normal to most of us today, throughout the large majority of human history, “might made right.” The powerful got what they wanted while the weak were forced to abide by the rules set up by those in authority.
Those in power would therefore fight to the death to hold onto their power and advance their own interests, knowing that any non-appointed successor would destroy all their efforts. There was no such thing as peaceful conflict resolution or a peaceful turnover of power. Democracy turned everything on its head by introducing a way to channel disagreements into the political process. This channeling became known as the freedom of speech.
Yet, there is today a dangerous movement on college campuses across the country that aims to eliminate this essential freedom of speech in order to “avoid offending anyone.” Can you imagine what type of country we would live in today if our founders had decided not to write the Declaration of Independence in fear of “offending” the Crown? Or if Franklin Delano Roosevelt had decided not to declare war on the Germans so that he didn’t “offend” any German-Americans?
At many public universities across America, there are “designated free speech zones.” Within these zones, and only within these zones, students are allowed to exercise their first amendment rights to free speech and to protest. You are only allowed to exercise this constitutional right, however, if the university approves of your actions and gives you a permit to do so.
As one could guess, this leads to a number of terrifying repercussions. Last month, a student group at Penn State was approached by a police officer and told to “cease and desist” from one of these free-speech zones. Their crime? Handing out copies of the Constitution without a permit.
The fun, of course, doesn’t stop there. Last March, the University of California-Irvine voted to stop the flying of the American flag in their main lobby. Their reasoning? Old Glory apparently represents “oppression,” “colonialism and imperialism.” They decided that any decoration that any student finds at all offensive would be removed from the lobby, so long as one student make the request.
This trend of political correctness is one of the most threatening challenges to our democracy today. Even Barack Obama said last month that students shouldn’t be “coddled and protected from different points of view.” He smartly argued that “you shouldn’t silence [people that disagree with you] by saying … ‘I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’” Quite simply, that is not how we learn.
Thankfully, Notre Dame seems to understand this and has been spared from much of the speech chilling that has developed as a result of this movement. Our University has invited speakers from both sides of the aisle to speak and has allowed students to express themselves through protest across campus. Heller’s letter, however, affirms that there is a branch of people on campus who subscribe to the irresponsible idea that all offensive speech should be prohibited.
The fact of the matter is that America is not a conformist nation. Conformity, whether to liberal or conservative principles, is not one of our ideals. We believe in the free expression of all of our citizens because we know that it is when all beliefs become a part of the marketplace of ideas that the best ones survive and improve our nation.
The true exceptional nature of America’s marketplace of ideas is that it derives from a nation of immigrant stock. Each generation seems to witness to a new wave of immigrants from a new area of the world who bring with them their new ideas, customs and traditions.
America is great not because we force these immigrants to conform to our own ideas, customs and traditions, but because we listen to the newcomers and merge their best ideas with our best ones to create an even better American culture. The great American Melting Pot is always brewing and always improving. This is because The Observer, and newspapers like it, choose to publish controversial speech that may ruffle a few feathers. But hey, that’s just part of the beauty of democracy.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.