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What it means to be free

| Monday, December 7, 2015

What is free speech? This question has dogged philosophers for centuries. We all know the First Amendment protects this right: “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,” but the difficulty lies in laying out the boundaries of that free speech.

Is it that free speech means I can say or write whatever I want? I think even the most outspoken person would agree that obviously the answer is no. Traditionally, the line is drawn in areas of speech that incite hatred, specifically violence towards other people. For instance, in Germany it is against the law to deny the Holocaust. We can all agree implying slavery is the natural order is an obviously heinous statement, and therefore should not be allowed to be spoken publicly.

But as I mentioned before, the examples above are obvious. But what about other topics, maybe even topics that people are too readily offended by? I have often had discussions with people who are extreme moralists and say that because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, he cannot be a great man. Or because Mahatma Gandhi made teenage young girls sleep naked next to him to prove his strength of character, what he did for India is null and void. Because these people did these negative things, does that mean that we should not speak positively about them?

But besides free speech between friends and family, where does the government draw the line? How much can the government prevent people from saying anything they want? Should we make actual rules, where you are punished by the government for saying certain things, or should we simply make it so socially unacceptable that you would be ridiculed for saying such things?

These questions are not easily answered, and they are made even more pressing in light of recent things that have been done and said by a certain possible presidential candidate. A lot of what he says about certain minority groups and his recent mimicry of a disabled reporter are said under the guise of “free speech” and are therefore met with criticism, but not punished, as he is allowed to say such things under the Constitution.

One of the biggest influencers on free speech, and one of the many reasons why we are allowed to say whatever is on our mind, is John Stuart Mill, whose “On Liberty” specifically demonstrates that free speech is what really makes us free. For Mill, the inability to speak one’s mind is the real cause of the problems preexistent in our nation. For him, the majority “voice” destroys the liberty of the individual. But the problem still lies in where to draw the line.

Part of the answer for Mill lies in the issue of supposedly free speech causing others to be subjugated to our general will.

For the real problem with free speech lies in the voiceless. The problem lies in those who once had a voice and are now voiceless. The problem lies in those on the margins of society, who the majority has deemed unable to fit within the world they have created.

The problem lies with the fact that I feel free to give my opinion without wondering about the consequences of my action, because I know that the worst that will happen is someone will disagree with me intellectually, not based on the color of my skin, or even my gender.

The problem lies in the fact that when people disagree with each other, it is not based on the legitimacy of their arguments, but rather on what people perceive to be attacks on their personhood.

The problem lies in the fact that we are talking past each other, at each other and not with each other, in agreement that the most important aspect of a discussion is the ideas are shared. Agreement does not have to be reached.

There is beauty in disagreement. There is beauty in the idea that two people can walk away from each other, after having shared their ideas, and not feeling as though their argument was pointless.

There is beauty in our difference. There is beauty also in commonality.

I don’t have an answer to the limitations on free speech. But I think a good place to start is to recognize the humanity in each other.

Kitty Baker is a senior program of liberal studies and film, television and theatre major and proud Cavanaughty. She can be reached at cbaker7@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Mr. Pockets

    Why should Holocaust denial be banned speech? It’s absurdly inaccurate and often used by appalling people, but it’s easy to refute and almost impossible to argue effectively. Why would we be scared of intellectually deficient arguments?

  • John Robin

    Catherine, thanks for your interesting thoughts about free speech and the need to recognize to the humanity of those our words affect.

    You wrote, “We can all agree implying slavery is the natural order is an obviously heinous statement, and therefore should not be allowed to be spoken publicly.” I agree that slavery is a heinous practice, and arguments that slavery is part of the “natural order” are wrong and offensive. But I disagree that such arguments made publicly should be prohibited. Who will define which unorthodox ideas are to be banned? You? Me? Congress? The Supreme Court? We have all been wrong, from time to time.

    Censoring public speech -except for egregious examples like inflammatory speech inciting imminent violence- is like a forest fire: easy to start, but rather harmful to the trees, and it’s a fire with an insatiable appetite. There’s no end to the harm done to a just society when public discourse is subject to government control. Orthodoxy imposed by the force of law is tyranny.

    This is why individuals and private institutions must stand firm when they are pressured to support unjust ideas or unjust laws, even if those ideas are considered “orthodox” at that point in history: such as slavery, racial segregation, religious discrimination, elective abortion. All these evils have enjoyed the support of unjust law, and many of those who opposed them were labelled radicals and heterodox. What if these dissidents were systematically silenced by prosecution and penalty?

    The First Amendment protects speech that many may find offensive. But without legal protection for free speech it is impossible to have either freedom or justice.

  • MC

    The government cannot prevent free speech, but nobody, including presidential candidates, is protected from the social consequences. Also, there is a lot of logic to where our government draws the line. We would allow Holocaust deniers to speak their mind under our Constitution. Time, place, and manner!