Thursday, November 26, 2015

Free Speech Confusion: Of Coddled College Students and Profane Professors

The future of free speech is making headlines as we try to parse out what this "new generation" of coddled college students who just can't stand to be offended means for our cultural value of being able to say whatever the hell you want to whoever the hell you want without consequence.

Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center released poll data showing that 40% of Millennials think that the government should be able to prevent offensive speech against minorities (as opposed to 27% of Gen Xers, 24% of Boomers, and just a measly 12% of those epithet-loving Silents).

Since then, I have seen a whole lot of people (in social media, news outlets, and in real life) wringing their hands about what this means for the future of America. Are today's kids going to hand over the land of the free to authoritarian dictatorships because we're afraid of getting our feelings hurt? (Though, I'm a Millennial, and I'm 30, so pretty soon we're going to have to stop with the "kids today" narrative when it comes to Millennials, right? Don't we ever get to grow up?!)

Since then, there's been some walking back of the initial fears. Even people who were initially part of the hype are revisiting the context of their fears. For example, Jesse Singal of New York Magazine originally reported the Pew results as being extremely high, but later wrote a follow-up piece where he examines the wording of the poll and compares it to historical data to demonstrate things really aren't that different

J.F. Sargent, writing for Cracked, initially lamented the generation of people who are just looking for a reason to be offended, but just this week wrote a very interesting post about what we're missing when it comes to college students and free speech. His conclusion, much like Singal's is that the college student crisis is not nearly as dire as we're making it out to be. And he also points to several very serious free speech issues that we're conveniently ignoring (or at least not turning into memes and collectively shaking our heads about as we mourn the death of freedom). A prime example is at Mizzou (the very campus that has been held up as free speech hating activists run amok even though the professor who blocked the journalists was removed from her position and apologized for her actions). While we had a collective freakout over that story, another Mizzou-related free speech violation flew largely under the radar. A Missouri state senator has been trying to intimidate and force a Mizzou grad student from completing her dissertation on abortion and the impact of Missouri's 72-hour waiting period. As Sargent writes: 
This happened at literally the exact same school as the protests, and it's a way more cut-and-dry threat to free speech. The government is literally telling a grad student what they're allowed to study, which is precisely what the first amendment is meant to prevent.
Still, it does seem true that my generation is more sensitive to offensive speech, and that's largely thanks to the way that information is disseminated today. We have global platforms and the ability to share both our offensive thoughts and our offended reactions in a matter of seconds. The impact of hateful speech cannot be ignored as easily as the buffers of privilege have been partially pierced by social media. It's a lot harder to think that your blackface Halloween costume is "just a joke" when you see social media campaigns and the reactions of actual minorities telling you that's not the case. It's much harder to think that catcalling a woman on the street is just harmless fun when women are taking to social media en masse to share their fear and disgust.

And people who bemoan my generation's threat to free speech because of our sensitivity to the pervasive nature of racism, sexism, homophobia, and class disparities would be wise to remember that these campaigns are free speech, too. Publicly shaming someone for their Halloween costume is not a violation of the costume wearers rights; it's a practice of the rights of those who witness it.

When I shared the link to the Pew poll, someone asked me if I was sharing it because I thought it was a good thing. The answer is no. I shared it because I thought it was interesting, and now after doing more research into the actual context of the polling, I think that the reaction is even more interesting than the data.

But I think what the question was getting at was whether or not I myself thought that offensive speech should be legally regulated. The answer to that is also no. I'm among the 60% of Millennials who think that speech (even when offensive) should remain free of government restriction.

I did pause for a while and try to think through the implications of my answer. And my response has to start with the recognition that I am white. I don't experience the horrors of much of this hate speech the way that, say, Mizzou's student body president did. There isn't a racial slur that I have to fear being lobbed at me when I'm trying to walk around my own community. I recognize that and admit that this buffer of racial privilege keeps me from speaking from a place of complete understanding when it comes to the legality of hate speech.

I do, though, have plenty of firsthand experience with street harassment. I've also been the victim of plenty of horrendous internet harassment, including death and rape threats (a common occurrence for women who dare to be active in online spaces). It is really unpleasant to be running down a street and hearing someone you don't even know shout out sexually suggestive things and then call you a "bitch" or "whore" when you don't respond the way they want. It's scary. It has ruined my day, made me afraid to run outside, and made me angry at myself for not knowing how to respond or for being too afraid of what those men might do to me to actually stand up for myself.

I can admit that in those moments, I've wished for a law that bans their words. But when I stop to think about how that law would be enacted, I still side with free speech.

What would we ban? The words? I don't ever believe in banning words. If some man isn't allowed to yell "bitch" at me when I'm running down the street, does that mean a woman could be arrested for referring playfully to her best friend as a "bitch"?

In the FCC v. Pacifica ruling (a major case for free speech in which the FCC was granted very broad oversight into protecting the public from "indecent" speech on the airwaves), George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" skit was upheld as unfit for public airwaves.

Justice Brennan dissented in this case, and within his dissent, he says this (I know, I know. My quote is long. I tried to make it shorter, but it's just so good): 
It is quite evident that I find the Court's attempt to unstitch the warp and woof of First Amendment law in an effort to reshape its fabric to cover the patently wrong result the Court reaches in this case dangerous as well as lamentable. Yet there runs throughout the opinions of my Brothers POWELL and STEVENS another vein I find equally disturbing: a depressing inability to appreciate that in our land of cultural pluralism, there are many who think, act, and talk differently from the Members of this Court, and who do not share their fragile sensibilities. It is only an acute ethnocentric myopia that enables the Court to approve the censorship of communications solely because of the words they contain. 
"A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used." Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 418, 425 (1918) (Holmes, J.). The words that the Court and the Commission find so unpalatable may be the stuff of everyday conversations in some, if not many, of the innumerable subcultures that compose this Nation. Academic research indicates that this is indeed the case. See B. Jackson, "Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me" (1974); J. Dillard, Black English (1972); W. Labov, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular (1972). As one researcher concluded, "[w]ords generally considered obscene like `bullshit' and `fuck' are considered neither obscene nor derogatory in the [black] vernacular except in particular contextual situations and when used with certain intonations." C. Bins, "Toward an Ethnography of Contemporary African American Oral Poetry," Language and Linguistics Working Papers No. 5, p. 82 (Georgetown Univ. Press 1972). Cf. Keefe v. Geanakos, 418 F.2d 359, 361 (CA1 1969) (finding the use of the word "motherfucker" commonplace among young radicals and protesters). 
Today's decision will thus have its greatest impact on broadcasters desiring to reach, and listening audiences composed of, persons who do not share the Court's view as to which words or expressions are acceptable and who, for a variety of reasons, including a conscious desire to flout majoritarian conventions, express themselves using words that may be regarded as offensive by those from different socio-economic backgrounds.[fn8] In this context, the Court's decision may be seen for what, in the broader perspective, it really is: another of the dominant culture's inevitable efforts to force those groups who do not share its mores to conform to its way of thinking, acting, and speaking. See Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 506-511 (1977) (BRENNAN, J., concurring).
I agree with Brennan. If we start trying to ban individual words, we're essentially demanding that all subcultures and minority groups acquiesce to one dominant definition of those words, and that's unacceptable. Words that are offensive in one context can be empowering in another. I'm thinking here of having chanted "cunt" at a showing of the Vagina Monologues. That's a word that I certainly don't want screamed at me on the street, but in that moment, surrounded by allies against gender oppression, it was a word full of power.

So instead of trying to ban the speech, many anti-catcalling activists have taken to free speech tools of their own. They're releasing videos documenting the violations of their safety and peace as they walk down the street. They've started hanging "No Catcalling" signs on city streets. And these tactics have started many serious conversations that are demanding changes to the culture.

The problem is being addressed with more speech, not less. The true power of free speech is that it can be claimed and filled with power by the most marginalized. Free speech is the tool that allows us to stand up to the dominant narratives and make our voices heard.

I don't think today's college students are going to give that up. I believe, instead, that they're trying to untangle the particularly tricky work of navigating speech rights in an unprecedented time of public accountability. And I believe, perhaps naively but fully, that the American tradition of free speech will prevail--perhaps more powerfully than those who've benefited from oppression would like.

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