My Two Cents on Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech is an often discussed topic in the American national dialogue. It is a right that we, as Americans, consider inalienable and absolutely integral to a free society. Musicians, as artists and as people with a general interest in culture, should be particularly defensive when it comes to free speech and the right to express oneself artistically or otherwise without fear of violence or legal persecution. For this reason, I am choosing to share my thoughts on free speech and what it means to me.

With Donald Trump as the current presumptive Republican nominee in the upcoming election for President of The United States, some voices in the national discussion have started to call certain kinds of speech into question. Xenophobia, racism, sexism, and bigotry of almost every variety, when not explicit in Trump’s campaign rhetoric, have been heavily implied. It is the kind of rhetoric that many consider to be dangerous, particularly when echoed by such a large (and clearly vocal) portion of our population. From Donald Trump calling for the cessation of Muslims entering the U.S. to his claim that he will force Mexico to pay for a literal wall to be built along the border to prevent illegal immigration, it is clear that he has said contemptible things. Yet while his comments have been met with disdain and outrage from some, they have been met with enthusiasm from others.

A lot of people in the 21st century take to the internet to voice their opinions around election time (hey! that’s what I’m doing) and that means more opinion-pieces than the average person can digest. Blog posts, petitions, Facebook groups, and Twitter wars have all made evident a huge difference of opinion among Americans regarding free speech and whether or not there are any lines to be drawn. Some students at universities such as California State University, the University of Kansas, Emory University in Georgia, and others have begun an initiative that many are referring to as “safe-spaces,” which essentially provides a closed forum for students to collectively lick their wounds after being subjected to hateful rhetoric or political/social opinions that may not align with their own. In some cases, students have rallied to protest scheduled speakers not just in an attempt to express their opinion, but rather to shut down the event altogether and force their school to cancel the speaker’s engagement. This phenomenon has been met with ridicule, equivalency arguments about the echo-chamber mentality of adults across the political spectrum, and even some defensiveness on the basis of fear of violence… oh, and more (awesome) ridicule.

It was much to my delight that President Obama recently spoke to students in Iowa about freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas being conducive to a broader point of view. He talks about “testing [his] own assumptions” and even occasionally being met with a perspective that would eventually change his mind on an issue. To people who understand how important free speech is, this is not a necessary explanation. However, to people who are genuinely questioning whether or not certain points of view should be allowed to be voiced in public or otherwise, the President’s explanation is indescribably important. If you hear people saying hateful things, confront them and challenge their point of view. If someone is misinformed, correct them and be prepared to cite your sources. As Jon Stewart said in his last appearance on The Daily Show, “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance, so if you smell something, say something.” However, silencing anyone (yes, even people who openly and enthusiastically espouse hatred and bigotry) is the absolute wrong approach and puts you in a category with book-burners and the PMRC. (Does anybody remember the PMRC?)

Censorship is the enemy of a free-thinking society. If the opinions of one person or a group of people inflame you to the point of legitimately attempting to silence them (particularly through legislative means, no matter what the governing force), then you are acting based purely on fear. And potentially self-righteous indignation. Or perhaps both.

Granted, there are people and organizations who promote ugly rhetoric. There is no question. The KKK is widely reviled for its racism. The Westboro Baptist Church’s insane and intensely offensive crusade against LGBT rights in the U.S. needs to be often defended against.

Sometimes, people will say ugly things and expect to suffer zero consequences under the guise of free speech. For example, Paula Deen was fired from the Food Network after using racial slurs. Some people made the argument that she should not have been fired on the grounds of free speech. However, a privately owned cable channel certainly has the right to decide who they want working for them based on their business interests or ethics. Conversely, Target recently adjusted its policy to support the freedom for transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender. This decision was met predictably with calls for a boycott of Target stores. Bigoted organizations and people who say bigoted things are free to say what they want and practice their bigotry in a nonviolent way, but that does not mean that they or their remarks are not subject to repudiation and/or rebuttal from other private entities. But the moment that you attempt to stifle these organizations or individuals from expressing their opinions, you are stifling free speech.

History is rife with examples of free speech being outlawed and the resultant hardships and suffering. But we do not even have to dig into history for examples. There are present day examples. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan for speaking freely (and bravely) about the right for girls everywhere to receive an education. The French magazine Charlie Hebdo was met with violence and death for printing satire. It was not long ago that Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing a book.

How you rank the tastefulness or offensiveness of a piece of satire, a book, a film, or any other tangible means of expression, is irrelevant to the argument in favor of free speech. People often have the argument about “who draws the lines” when it comes to acceptable speech. The answer is no one. You have the right to criticize, condemn, or ignore. You do not have the right to oppress.

As Donald Trump marches on toward the general election, it will be the responsibility of the American people to either condemn or condone his leadership. In an election, everyone’s voice should be heard. If you think that Trump and his supporters are wrong on the issues, then you should write about it, speak about it, and debate them on it. We can (and should) argue all season long about this election. But if we are to remain a free society, then we should all think critically, voice our opinions freely, and keep open minds. Censorship is the practice of fascists, but deliberation is the practice of the free.

Please let me know your thoughts on this issue. Oh, and if I used any commas incorrectly, don’t be afraid to call me out on it.