Monday, March 29, 2010

Wrestling with Free Speech

I confess it: sometimes I wrestle with the issue of free speech. More specifically, I wrestle with the idea of free speech when I read about things that are so blatantly offensive and arguably hateful that I almost can't justify them being said or written. Two events recently have gotten me thinking about it-- one piece in the international news, and one from my own college campus.

The news piece that first got me thinking was an article published in the Ottawa Citizen about how Ann Coulter's speech at the University of Ottawa was cancelled. The conservative commentator has been on a speaking tour around Canada, and has encountered considerable resistance from liberally-minded Canadians who opposed her message and the manner in which she delivered it. Although there were protests at a majority of her speaking locations, the protests at the University of Ottawa were so vehement that security urged Coulter to cancel the event, sparking criticism and debates from Coulter and others about how friendly Canada is to freedom of expression.

The other instance happened just today. Our student newspaper, the Eagle, published a piece by one of its more incendiary columnists, Alex Knepper, entitled, "Dealing with AU's anti-sex brigade." Read the column, then look at the comments. Words really can't adequately describe the controversial nature of the contents, but suffice it to say that Knepper managed to get virtually every female on campus up in arms when he stated that there is no such thing as date rape, and criticized the feminist movement for its views on sex. Just an excerpt:
“Date rape” is an incoherent concept. There’s rape and there’s not-rape, and we need a line of demarcation. It’s not clear enough to merely speak of consent, because the lines of consent in sex — especially anonymous sex — can become very blurry. If that bothers you, then stick with Pat Robertson and his brigade of anti-sex cavemen! Don’t jump into the sexual arena if you can’t handle the volatility of its practice!
To put it mildly, the AU campus community freaked out. I would be willing to bet that the Eagle hasn't gotten this many comments on a single article in years. There has been a range of (in my opinion, fairly low-key) vandalism and threats, and attacks on Knepper in general. There have also been an outpouring of comments and letters to the editor flowing into the newspaper, many of them criticizing the editors for having the nerve to put the piece into print.

So here's where my personal dilemma comes in. I hate just about everything Ann Coulter stands for, and I disagree with virtually everything Alex Knepper wrote in that column. I don't believe that hate speech of any variety has a place in a civilized society, and I am offended by the notion that someone would put such a stark line between "rape and not-rape," which vastly oversimplifies relational and sexual dilemmas AND devalues the pain felt by women who HAVE been raped, date or otherwise.

But here's the thing. I also hate censorship. I recognize the fact that if I am to be able to hold and express my opinions in this society, others should be able to hold and express theirs. I don't envy the Supreme Court their duty to identify where First Amendment rights to free speech end and where public safety or whatever is at stake. As much as I hate to admit it, Fox News has the same right to air Glenn Beck that MSNBC has to air Keith Olbermann.

If you ask me, there are more questions in this arena than answers. Yes, I think Knepper went WAY over any line of civility. Yes, I think that Ann Coulter's anti-Muslim comments in her speeches were distinctly inappropriate and downright hateful. I really don't think that "shock jocks" belong in real journalism. But those are my opinions. What about you?

Who gets to decide what is appropriate for publication and what is not?
What are liberals going to do if the tables get turned and people start getting really offended by what they say?
How do we reconcile the need for free speech that has been valued for so long, and the need to respect people and carry on CIVIL conversation?

I don't know. But it's food for thought.


Bryan said...

Excellent point. I think the solution, at least in AU's case, lies in the very medium you're using to express your own frustration.

Just because the Eagle can publish poorly worded vitriol that is hateful, crude and thoroughly inappropriate doesn't mean they have to. If Alex Knepper wants to be a sexist, misogynist, insensitive caveman (to use his own phrase) on a soap box then he can blog about it. If he wants to get such harmful and ill-conceived words out to people, he should put it online.

The Eagle has better things to do that spread that kind of incendiary language.

jkwondo said...

I think the Eagle did it. They need to move on. I expect rebuttals. But on the other hand, people need to realize that a person is entitled to their views. I staunchly believe in the first amendment. The Eagle did it. Move on

Bryan said...

The Eagle did what exactly? Also, this isn't a free speech issue.

The Constitution states that Congress shall make no law interfering with free speech and expression.

There is nothing in the first amendment which requires the publication of vitriol. It is entirely the perogative of the newspaper to decide what it is going to publish and what it is not.

The decision to do so would have no implications for or impact on Alex Knepper's ability to spout his hateful, incendiary, poorly informed and destructive views. It would however potentially rob his words of their weight and perhaps more importantly, save the Eagle from an awful lot of publicity it didn't need.