Friday, July 17, 2009

Freedom of Speech applies to both you and those you completely disagree with

One of the harsher things to realize about our beloved Freedom of Speech is that it also applies to your opponents and enemies, no matter how badly what they say irritates you, and that they are fundamentally allowed to say whatever they want as long as it isn't downright illegally slanderous, dangerous or exceedingly offensive. This is a lesson many universities and public educational institutions need to learn if they ever desire to stop being dragged into courts over complaints of censorship and the likes.

Here's one example of such. A class at the Los Angeles Community College was held where students were to give speeches about whatever subjects they wanted. Jonathan Lopez chose to give a speech about his Christian faith and beliefs – including his stance on the wrongness of gay marriage. However, he was barely halfway through his address when the teacher, Professor John Matteson, brusquely cut him off, called him a "fascist bastard" right there before the whole class, and refused to let him finish his speech. He also refused to grade Lopez' speech, instead writing "Ask God what your grade is" on his evaluation sheet.

As much as I don't like Christian beliefs and their stance against gay marriage, I do recognize that I have absolutely no right at all to censure them and prohibit them from communicating their views. It's as much their fundamental right to preach their views against homosexuality as it is my right to spread my opinions for it. Trying to shut them up would be highly hypocritical, and not to mention, downright unconstitutional (were I in the U.S., though I'm certain Canada has laws about this sort of stuff as well).

As much as I believe Lopez was wrong in what he said and that it was likely inflammatory and irritating, had I been in that classroom when the teacher yelled at him like that, I likely would've stood up and yelled right back at the Professor and told him quite clearly that it was none of his business to try and shut Lopez up (and much less insult him like that). It would've been the right thing to do.

Thankfully, Lopez didn't just take it sitting down. He lodged a formal complaint with the school administration, but that resulted in nothing other than further admonishing him, telling him he'd violated the school's anti-hate-speech policy by "offending others" (great, more morons who have no idea what hate speech rules even are). Worse even, Professor Matteson found out about the complaint against him and then threatened to have Lopez expelled altogether. What a fantastic teacher, isn't he: expel the students whose views you don't agree with. Brilliant. And sickening.

Finally, Lopez filed a lawsuit with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian freedom-of-expression legal defense group, against the school and its stupid anti-hate-speech policy. As a response to their preliminary letter, the LACC actually quoted two students who had heard the speech:

"His speech was not of the informative style that our assignment called for, but rather a preachy, persuasive speech that was completely inappropriate and deeply offensive. I respect his right to freedom of speech, but I also do not believe that our classroom is the proper platform for him to spout his hateful propaganda."

The second student said "I don't know what kind of actions can be taken in this situation, but I expect that this student should have to pay some price for preaching hate in the classroom."

I'm sorry kids, but if your reaction to his speech (however intense it may have been) is to shrivel up in indignation and offense, you just need to grow up and get over it already. He wasn't infringing on your rights, so you have no business criticizing his own right to spread his views.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending: the court ruled in favor of Lopez' plight, judging that the school's policy was unconstitutional and overbroad:

We conclude that the Policy prohibits a substantial amount of protected free speech, even judged in relation to unprotected conduct that it can validly prohibit. First, as the above quotations make clear, the Policy prohibits some speech solely because the speaker “has the purpose” of causing an effect, regardless of whether the speech actually has any effect. The Supreme Court has held that a school may not prohibit speech unless the speech will “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” [...] Thus, the Policy’s regulation of speech based solely on the motive of the speaker is unconstitutional.

[My emphasis]

I completely agree. Censoring Lopez just because his opinions "offended others" is a bullshit excuse by any stretch of the imagination. Those who say Blacks are equal to Whites offend "others" (ie. neo-nazis, White Supremacists, etc.). Should they be silenced as well? (And mind you, that's just one of the hundreds of examples I could pull up.)

You only censure someone if they speak to intentionally cause harm, either via patently untrue slander and libel, or such as yelling "BOMB!" at an airport. Otherwise, they have the right to speak their minds, regardless of how vile or stupid it may be.

Though, of course, it also means you have the right to call them fucking idiotic bigots for it, depending on what they say.

(via Dispatches from the Culture Wars)


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