My Free Speech Manifesto
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Politics and Activism

My Free Speech Manifesto

Free speech doesn't mean consequence-free speech.

My Free Speech Manifesto

Professional alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos has gained quite a following. In the last year, he has given speeches on numerous college campuses throughout the country, and sparked protests nearly everywhere he went. He most recently made headlines when his appearance at UC Berkeley was cancelled after an initially peaceful protest turned violent.

The highly publicized incident has been the subject of widespread public controversy, igniting old ideological debates along the same lines that they've always been. The protesters faced much backlash for becoming violent, particularly from those on the right. Among the detractors was Jeffrey Herbst, who had this to say to the protesters in a CNN op-ed:

"But the protesters, whose actions led to the cancellation of his talk at Berkeley and elsewhere, have done a disservice to the First Amendment.

As numerous college presidents have noted while defending their decisions to allow him to speak in the face of protests, freedom of speech applies to those whose rhetoric many find distasteful. Indeed, hate speech, except under very narrow exceptions -- such as direct encouragement to others to immediately commit violence -- is protected speech in the United States.

The First Amendment is truly tested not when mainstream speech is routinely expressed, but when those at the margin seek to express their views. These days, we are often failing that test."

And there it is. He pulled the "free speech" card. And like many who dole it out, he did so while seemingly misunderstanding the true meaning of "freedom of speech" as it is spelled out in the Constitution, and as it is applied and enforced on U.S. citizens.

This serves as a perfect opportunity for me to present something which has been a long time in the making. So, without further ado, I present to my Odyssey audience: Sam Granger's Simplified Free Speech Manifesto. I hope it will bring some clarity to those confused about what the freedom of speech actually entails.

I'll begin with some background about the principle of free speech. It's one of the most widely known rights enshrined by the Constitution, and one of five constitutional rights granted by the First Amendment: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to peacefully assemble, freedom to petition the government, and freedom of religion. As the Newseum cynically notes, more Americans know all five members of the Simpson family on the sitcom The Simpsons than the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

For greater clarity, here is the full text of the First Amendment as it appears in the Bill of Rights:

"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."

I've read and taken part in a number of Facebook debates, and more than once, in a very heated debate, I've seen someone comment, "We have the right to free speech." Usually, it is in response to a more vehement opponent who isn't being particularly civil in discourse and often resorting to insults and ad hominem, and more often than not, the people who dole out the "free speech" card are politically conservative.

So, my question for those who would play the "free speech" card is: how, exactly, is your freedom of speech being violated?

If you're informing someone in a Facebook debate that you have the right to freedom of speech, then your freedom of speech is not being violated. Someone insulting or belittling your opinion at length is not violating your free speech, especially not on a social network where you can block them with the click of a mouse.

There are a lot of places that I believe such a contention could be coming from, intentionally or not. I think some people dole it out as an appeal to emotion, because they believe that if they are on the side of "free speech," they are on the winning side of the argument. Frankly, it just seems to serve as a cop out and a derailment of the conversation for when one doesn't have a solid argument related specifically to the substance of the debate.

Entitlement to one's own opinion doesn't mean entitlement to arbitrary respect for that opinion, no matter what it is. That your opinion is protected by the First Amendment does not make the expression of it it immune to criticism or consequence, or mean that everyone has to hear you out or break out the red carpets and give you a platform to voice your opinion, or that your opinion is incapable of being problematic. Freedom of speech doesn't give you a free pass to not care whether what you're saying is problematic, and to say whatever you want without people criticizing you. If you believe otherwise, then you don't believe in freedom of speech. At least, you don't believe in freedom of speech for anyone but yourself and those who agree with you. The people who call you out on your bullsh*t have the right to freedom of speech, too, and that they react strongly to your opinion doesn't mean they don't acknowledge your right to free speech. They're merely exercising their own.

Pointing out your freedom of speech when you're called out for saying something insensitive contributes nothing of substance to the discourse, and gives me no new information to ponder that might make me reconsider where I stand. You're only telling me something I already know. Telling you something you said is problematic isn't calling your freedom of speech into question. You have the right to free speech? Yeah, and water is wet. What else is new?

Here is where this is relevant to Milo Yiannopoulos. Those who believe Milo should be allowed to speak on college campuses often argue that it is a matter of protecting freedom of speech. Again, can you explain to me how Milo's freedom of speech would be violated by him not being granted a platform to speak by universities? There is a difference between merely allowing him to be on campus and speak his mind, and giving him a platform to do so.

Freedom of speech does not mean universities are obligated to grant any schmuck who wants to say something a platform to do so. Universities are allowed to screen those they invite to speak and evaluate whether they would be of educational value to students, and contribute positively to the discourse and free flow of ideas. Most universities wouldn't invite a speaker who believes that the Earth is flat, nor should they. So, the real debate is not over free speech, but over a) whether Milo has educational value as a speaker, and b) whether his being prohibited from speaking on campuses compromises their commitment to a marketplace of ideas.

This is an argument which is primarily controversial among those who subscribe to leftist political views, and I see some validity on both sides of it. Concerning whether Milo has educational value, a friend of mine opposed Milo being invited to speak on Michigan State University campus on the basis that his primary vocation is a tech writer, but his speeches tend to center around social justice issues, so he couldn't bring as much insight as someone who actually addresses social justice issues for a living.

My bigger concern is the implications of Milo's presence on campuses for the safety of certain students. It's very evident that individuals who are willing to harass or otherwise harm women, immigrants, Hispanics, Muslims, LGBTQ+ folks, or other marginalized individuals find validation in Milo. He was banned from Twitter after inciting racist and misogynistic harassment against actress Leslie Jones. When Milo came to Michigan State back in December, the Sparty statue was defaced with racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic messages. At another one of his speeches, a counter protester was actually shot by one of Milo's supporters, who was infuriatingly not charged with a crime.

During an appearance at a university in Wisconsin whose name escapes me, Milo outed and harassed a transgender female student, made a virulently transphobic joke about how she "passed" so poorly that he, a gay man, found her attractive, and then proceeded to whine about how he can't say the word "tr*nny" without offending someone. A speaker who outs LGBTQ+ students poses a threat to their safety, as being outed potentially jeopardizes their jobs or their relationship with their families if they haven't come out and their families are not LGBT friendly, or worse could invite harassment or violence against them. And even without the safety issue, one has to question the educational value of a speaker who publicly whines like a petulant child about how he can't call people childish, degrading, transphobic names and not be called out on it.

(Friendly side note: I am aware that Milo is gay. It's irrelevant. Being gay does not arbitrarily make one immune to being hateful or problematic. Milo's speech still incites hate, and his homosexuality doesn't grant him a free pass to do so without being called on it.)

I'm still not 100 percent sure how I feel about the subject, in part because I don't know the full criterion for how MSU evaluates potential speakers. But I do know that freedom of speech, as it is enforced by the Constitution, is not relevant to whether an individual should be allowed to speak on a college campus. Among those who hail Milo Yiannopoulos as a "defender of free speech" (against a threat to free speech which is largely nonexistent), there has arisen this tendency to place offensive speech on a pedestal, and paint saying virulently offensive things as some heroic celebration of free speech.

I'm not against pushing the boundaries; that's how many marginalized groups have found empowerment. But there's a point where running your mouth doesn't make you some enlightened hero and defender of free speech. You're just being an asshole, and using "free speech" as an excuse to be an asshole. Well, guess what: it's not illegal to be an asshole, and that speech is protected by the First Amendment doesn't mean it is always worthy of being celebrated. Whether he is allowed to speak on campus or not, I will stand vigilant against Milo Yiannopoulos, because he espouses the hateful views that dehumanize and threaten the safety of students I care about.

I consider Milo Yiannopoulos nothing more than a loathsome, deplorable ignoramus. I can express that as vehemently as I please, so long as I am not threatening violence against him, and I'm not violating his free speech in doing so. Isn't the First Amendment fun? :)

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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