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Speech should be free but genial

Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The issue of censorship and freedom of speech has been the subject of fervent debate on campus and in the Viewpoint of late. Questions have arisen of whether certain cartoons should be published in The Observer and also of whether certain plays, such as the “Vagina Monologues” and “Loyal Daughters” have a rightful place on this campus or not. As Americans, we have been trained since grade school to quote our Constitutional rights and the “freedom of speech” rights derived from the First Amendment are the ones most often quoted. The mantra is, “It’s a free country, and I can say or print whatever I want,” and of course, I must be grateful of this reality, because these very words of mine have not been censored.

Yet, what does freedom of speech really mean? It is true that in America, unlike other repressive regimes such as the Communist U.S.S.R., the government cannot restrict the speech and publications of its citizens (with some exceptions, like child pornography). But this is a restriction upon the government, not upon the editors of newspapers or upon the authors of plays or comic strips. Would it not be equally oppressive for the government to require that newspapers publish everything submitted to them, taking away their power of self censorship?

In the case of The Observer, the recent letters asking that it make the editorial decision not to publish certain cartoons do not breech the First Amendment. Their request is that an independent newspaper censor itself and tighten the standards for what it publishes. No doubt, if The Observer featured articles or cartoons lampooning African-Americans, Jews, or homosexuals in a mean-spirited way, members of those communities would be upset and call upon the paper to censor itself in the future.

Yet, does this mean that The Observer should only publish articles or cartoons portraying the Church in a favorable light? No. The paper and the University should remain an open forum of debate, facilitating the exchange of opinions and teachings, this being the hallmark of any great intellectual institution. We must be free to debate whether there is any truth to be known, and if there is, what it is and how it affects our lives. That is what academic freedom is all about and what Oliver Wendell Holmes means by “free trade in ideas… in the competition of the market” (Jake Vos, “Paper should uphold ‘free trade of ideas,'” Feb 27).

But in order for it to remain an open market, all ideas and viewpoints must have the freedom to be heard and no side must become so belligerent as to do violence to other points of view. Thus, those in favor of the Church’s views must make their cases without being self-righteous, judgmental, or insulting. Likewise, those who offer viewpoints different from those of the Church should be free to air their opinions at Notre Dame and in The Observer, but also must be polite and genial. Freedom of speech does not mean the right to be as nasty and brutish as one can, but rather the right to speak one’s piece in such a way that will further the dialogue, seeking to persuade the opposition and not simply taking a cheap-shot at them.

Chris Spellman


off campus

Feb. 27