Opinion: The Future of Free Speech

For Marshfield (OnFocus) – There is a recent development in the US that concerns me about the future of our country. No, it’s not the handling of COVID-19, nor is it the upcoming Presidential election. This development is the attack against one of the fundamental freedoms provided to us in the first amendment of the US Constitution: the freedom of speech.

The first amendment reads, “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.”

While Congress has not explicitly introduced any bills that would limit this freedom of speech, there is a movement in public opinion as to what is and is not acceptable that could lead us to a watershed moment in the future.

Back in 2016, Canadian lawmakers were debating a proposed law, known as Bill C-16, that would provide protections towards transgender and gender-diverse citizens, or individuals who identify with a non-traditional or non-stereotypical concept of gender. However, the main controversy over the bill was the authority given to Government to determine whether using the incorrect pronoun to identify an individual was constituted a hate crime and was deemed illegal by this bill.

The bill was infamously opposed by Dr. Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto. In Dr. Peterson’s view, the issue wasn’t whether the use of preferred pronouns was right or wrong; rather, it was centered around the Government’s regulation of free speech. Dr. Peterson reasoned the passing of this bill as written could open Pandora’s box for the Government to determine acceptable speech in all facets of our lives, which could be a dangerous proposition.

For the regulation of freedom of speech, the power to determine what is and is not acceptable falls on other humans. The ones calling for restriction in speech through cancel culture and public shaming believe this regulation will be done by those who are like-minded and share the same viewpoints. What happens when your opinion is the one disallowed or deleted because moderators disagree with your opinion? This is the slippery slope society runs by implementing restrictions on freedom of speech. The world isn’t filled with like-minded individuals who share 100% of your opinions. It’s what makes humans human. We have our own thoughts and opinions based on our knowledge and experience. I doubt you’ll ever find another person who shares 100% of your thoughts. Shaming someone because they disagree with you dehumanizes every one victimized by public shaming.

Please understand I’m not advocating for the use of hate speech, racial slurs, or blatant lies. There are comments that nearly everyone would agree is egregious and inappropriate, and those people should get called out for saying it. The argument isn’t whether certain words should be spoken at all. It lies with who should be responsible for making the final determination of what is and is not allowed.

Recently, public social media outlets, like Twitter and YouTube, have been accused of removing tweets and videos from certain viewpoints. On political or controversial topics, only allowing one side of the argument to be published creates an echo chamber that keeps conversation stagnant and further divides the different sides to the argument.

Twitter recently announced President Trump’s account will be fact-checked. You may think, “Well this is a good thing. The President shouldn’t be tweeting false information, especially from a position of power.” While I agree he shouldn’t be blatantly spreading lies and false information, 1) there is a difference between sharing facts and opinions and 2) there’s a societal expectation to formulate and share an opinion on a topic before we have the full set of facts.

Have you ever voiced an opinion on a topic, only to learn more facts later to change your position? What if you were publicly shamed for holding your original viewpoint? If people are afraid to share their opinions for fear of public scrutiny, you’ll create a society where the citizens dare not think for themselves. When you stop thinking for yourself, you stop determining right from wrong. You become nihilistic. Ultimately, you open the door for regimes like communism and Marxism, or the rise in satanic leaders, like Stalin or Hitler.

The New York Times recently came under heavy scrutiny because they published an op-ed piece from Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, voicing his opinion on the use of the military to manage the riots and public protests arising from the death of George Floyd. Instead of listening to the Senator’s views to better understand his position, some pushed back to whether the piece should have posted at all. The public outcry towards the editor of the NYT for even publishing the piece points towards the cancel culture some in our society are pushing.

What can we do to combat this issue? First, accept that others will hold and share differing opinions. Whether it’s religion, abortion, climate control, the Presidential election, or if the earth is round or flat, you will find others who disagree with you. Second, remember opinions are not facts. Facts are available to support your opinion, but ultimately, your opinion is your own viewpoint. You may think Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback of all time, but you’ll be hard-pressed to convince someone that’s factually true. It’s merely your opinion on his career. Third, and most importantly, listen to each other with open minds. Social media has harvested a culture of disregarding differing opinions and undermining someone’s character when they disagree with you.

You can’t squash someone’s differing viewpoint by disallowing them to speak. Not only will they harden their stance, but they will lose respect for you. The great divide in this country is a direct result of the inability to hear other’s viewpoints and to understand why they hold their position. If you’re on the left, you can listen to the echo chamber created by MSNBC and CNN, or on the right, Fox News, and you’ll only hear points that support your current position and further the divide with those on the other side of the political spectrum.

It falls on each of us to hold freedom of speech to a higher standard, even if it means allowing others to voice opinions differing from our own. I encourage you to listen to different opinions and talking to others about controversial topics, not with the goal to teach, but with the goal to listen and learn. Only when we place an emphasis on listening to learn do we truly understand the value of freedom of speech.

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David Murphy
Author: David Murphy

David Murphy is a Wisconsin native who lives and works in Marshfield. He is a proud dog-dad to a cocker spaniel named Quincy. He enjoys reading, golfing, and giving back to his community.