Two hundred twenty seven years ago, our nation’s Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights: 10 seemingly straightforward amendments to the U.S. Constitution that to this day are the source of immense debate and controversy. Of the 10, one finds itself particularly tested as of late—the right to free speech.
“Congress shall make no law…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,” the First Amendment reads.
Americans feel as entitled to free speech as they do to a slice of warm apple pie on Thanksgiving. Other countries don’t have that liberty. Four years ago in Mumbai, India, a 21-year-old woman was arrested for complaining about the shutdown of the city on Facebook, according to Suketu Metha’s “India’s Speech Impediments” in the New York Times. The Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking published by Reporters without Borders, reported that all but two European Union member-states have a lower press freedom score in 2016 than they did in 2013.
Despite the controversy of the First Amendment, we’re lucky to have it and shouldn’t view it as an entitlement. Historical progress has been dictated by individuals and groups using the First Amendment to instill change. Without it, basic human rights that we take for granted in America likely wouldn’t exist. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech on April 3, 1968 that the First Amendment is what differentiates America from totalitarian countries, like China or Russia.
“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights,” he bellowed in his trademarked anaphora.
Dr. King Jr. is right—the greatness of America comes from the progression possible by the freedoms of its laws. However, what happens when one’s freedom to express impedes on another’s freedom to express?
On February 1, conservative writer and public speaker Milo Yiannopoulos arrived at UC Berkeley in Northern California to deliver a speech. Residing on the extreme end of the conservative spectrum, Yiannopoulos’ views strongly contradict the general political sentiment on Berkeley’s campus. According to the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board in “The No Free Speech Movement at Berkeley,” a group of professors attempted to cancel the event due to the Breitbart editor’s use of “hate speech.” The request was denied, but the professors set the tone for the level of free speech they’re willing to tolerate. The students and surrounding community protested, causing $100,000 worth of damage, according to the university. The event was finally cancelled to the cheers and applause of the Berkley protestors—a celebration of violence masked under free speech in the name of social justice to silence the voice of opposition.
The Berkeley incident had other players involved—anarchists, property damage and the university’s responsibility to protect the student body—but the display marked a pattern sweeping college campuses across the nation: people can’t handle opposing viewpoints, and will weaponize their First Amendment rights to stop it.
The movement for safe spaces on college campuses poses a serious threat to the First Amendment. According to Merriam-Webster, a safe space is, “a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.” Protesting opposing viewpoints to the point of cancelation and demanding safe spaces are the antithesis to what American liberty stands for. In its 2016 fall welcome letter, the University of Chicago struck back against safe spaces and political correctness as a whole, according to three New York Times writers.
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” John Ellison, dean of students, wrote.
America shouldn’t be at the point where colleges have to perform a publicity stunt to restate the benefits of the First Amendment. Universities and their student bodies should not only allow opposing view points, they should welcome them with open arms—that’s where real learning takes place. Citizens’ rights to protest under the First Amendment cannot block others from exercising their rights.
While this issue is particularly prominent on liberal college campuses, the right side of the political spectrum is also guilty of obstructing the First Amendment—all the way up to the top of the executive branch. President Donald Trump regularly impedes on a vital aspect of the First Amendment: the freedom of press. Award-winning White House reporter Alexis Simendinger said President Trump corralled the media during his presidential campaign and has erected obstacles to decrease the media’s efficiency during his presidency.
There are two actions that we must take to protect free speech from both sides of the political spectrum. First, violent protests and illegal, erroneous uses of the First Amendment should be dealt with powerfully and swiftly. People need to know what is allowed and what is not. As former President Ronald Reagan said, “All of it began the first time some of you who know better…let young people think that they had the right to choose the laws they would obey as long as they were doing it in the name of social protest,” he said. Second, citizens have the right to seek and know the truth, especially the media. The media must not let President Trump’s roadblocks and untraditional circumvention deprive the American people of knowledge. Honest, investigative journalism is more important than ever.
The Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment first for a reason: It’s critical to the liberty of the American people and to the preservation of democracy. Thus, the power to freely express comes with the responsibility to do so. If people become well-versed on the First Amendment and use it correctly and frequently, America will have a sovereign and flourishing democracy full of diverse opinions and progress.