Who here understands the difference between free speech and hate speech?
Free speech is the right to express an opinion — any opinion according to the United States Constitution — without censorship.
Hate speech attacks a person or group on the basis of something like race, sexual orientation, religion, disability, gender, and so on.
Two different things, right?
Well, it seems that in the last few years, the right has appropriated the concept of free speech to protect hate speech and bullying.
That is a problem.
You see, the first amendment to the United States Constitution protects free speech. It allows us to live free of censorship. It also protects freedom of the press, so as a journalist, I happen to be very familiar and a big fan of this particular amendment. However, some people seem confused. Free speech used to be a tool for democracy, brought out when people wanted to challenge the powers that be. Now it has been warped into something else. Conservatives like Fox News's Laura Ingraham claim that liberals are cutting off free speech by not letting the sometimes horrible things they say go unchecked.
But that is not how free speech works.
Yes, under the first amendment you have the right to say whatever you please. However, you are not entitled to say whatever you please without consequence. There is a difference. No matter what opinion you have about any issue, there will always be someone to disagree. And oftentimes that person, or group of people, will voice their discontent.
This is a liberal column on an openly feminist website — I am no stranger to opposition to my work or my speech. However, possessing the right to free speech does not give us the right to disrespect people. It does not give us the right to bully without question. It does not give us the right to hate or threaten openly.
Yes, you can say whatever you want — but so can those who oppose you.
Free speech does not give you protection from being called out for what is considered wrong or mean or cruel. It does not give you freedom from boycott. Just because you are allowed to state your views does not mean people have to agree. Forced compliance of that nature is often part of totalitarian regimes, not democracies. We cannot tout ourselves as a democratic republic and also force people to agree with us. That is not how this works.
Unfortunately the push back against liberalism has allowed the conflation of confrontation and censorship. Disagreements are not censorship. They are an active part of a free society. What is and remains frightening is when leaders disguise their hateful views and desire to go unchecked and unchallenged as their pursuit of free speech.
Do not be fooled by this.
To challenge someone on their opinion is not the same as stifling free speech. To claim that it operates as such is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to control the narrative.
People with power want to go unchecked, but if we keep our eyes open, if we’re brave enough to stand up and speak out against something we know to be wrong on a human level, that’s what will make America great.
In last week's senate confirmation hearing for Mike Pompeo, Trump's latest State Department pick, U.S. Senator for New Jersey, Cory Booker made clear our responsibility to speak out against "words that are violative of the American Constitution," adding at 01:25:
"I believe the special obligation that you talk about for Americans to condemn things that are attacking our Constitution or our ideals, would obligate you on your own definition to speak out."
We are still a work in progress — always have been. But we are young. We have time to fix the mistakes we’ve made. We need to try harder.
Living in what has been called a post-truth or post-factual society can be difficult. A world where leaders openly lie to the public, and half of the population simply believes them can be frustrating. And navigating the gray area wherein free speech gets conflated with free reign can be difficult — but don’t lose heart. We are in need of compassion in these troubled times. We need to protect each other and ourselves, and we need to understand the difference between a challenge and an attack.
We need to get better about understanding and partaking in educated discourse — because if we don’t talk to each other — if we can’t learn to listen, then we are truly lost. Don’t stop fighting. Don’t stop challenging our leaders to be better — to be truthful. And if they can’t, become one of those leaders yourself. This is America. We have been told all our lives that anything is possible. So look into your mind, find that picture of a perfect world that you hold out hope for, and make it possible. I believe in you. Stay strong.
And until next week, stay cool snowflakes.
Kelly Livingston is a freelance writer with a passion for intersectional feminism. After four years studying English and Anthropology at the University of Florida, she remains fascinated by the ways we can use writing to comment on and change our culture.