Opinion: Free speech is good in theory, but not so easy in practice

Free speech is one of those rights that falls under the “applies to all people” category. It is considered undeniable, equalizing and ought to be well respected. All of this is true in theory and should be something we strive to uphold.

In this editorial we are not arguing free speech’s theoreticals — we hope that anyone reading this mostly agrees. The question here is to what degree do our personal and societal biases color the way we implement laws and regulations claiming to protect free speech.

Imagine the famous, or infamous, Pit Preacher who haunts locations in or around the Pit. He is almost a fixture on this campus now, and proof that free speech rights are fairly well-protected on campus.

What would happen if he was not Christian? What if he was a Muslim man so actively condemning students walking by?

He would certainly not face the same response from the public. Just the presence of a silent Muslim man can lead to people irrationally feeling unsafe — that effect would be amplified if the man read from the exact same script as the Pit Preacher.

This is just one small, local example. An interesting thought experiment would be to imagine how your personal perceptions would change based on a change in actor. This also lends itself to a larger question: Can we really say free speech is equal?

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything happens in some kind of context. We contextualize free speech’s meaning and its implications. That is why, on a college campus, we can have organizations defend free speech in one instance and then oppose it in another.

It’s not that they disagree on the definition and importance of free speech — it’s a matter of ideological difference of what kinds of speech or speakers are appropriate to each side.

This is harmless until those biases systematically silence a group of people. This is evident in many of the struggles for civil rights. Activists, especially from minority communities, are often silenced or targeted for making controversial statements that others could easily make.

The most famous example may be when communists were targeted for freely associating with ideals deemed not American after World War II. It became so easy to silence communists that Black activists fighting for civil rights were often labeled communists as a way to discredit their work.

This is not easily reversed, but if we become more aware of our own biases, we can better achieve a world in which we can enact free speech in a manner such a lofty idea deserves.

Thanks for reading.

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