OFFENSE NOT ALLOWED? Testing Free Speech Limits

Written by Wes Walker on September 12, 2014

Free speech: We celebrate it. We revel in it. We claim to love it. We think we have it. — But do we? How would we even know? What would be the real test of whether we truly have free speech?

There was a time when knowing was easy. That word that gets “bleeped” out on the radio, are you free to say it, to sing it, to wear it on a shirt? That’s how you would know.

Are you free to criticize the government? To be a social activist? To take a stand against “The Man”? Do you get arrested, intimidated, or censured for saying the wrong things? Are you ostracized? Picketed? Shouted down? Do you pay some social price for saying the “wrong” things, for going to the “wrong” places. Do you fear a violent response?

Those words on the radio aren’t silenced quite so often, anymore — if at all. We even have “sanitized” versions of them. Cutesy slang terms like “f-bomb” or “mofo” sand away the hard edges from words that might once have made the “fairer sex” blush. Times have changed. Those words pass almost without notice now. The original sort of profanity, the cheapening of the Divine Name has gone even further than that. It’s become a throw-away three-letter acronym in the typical texting exchange.

If once-slanderous language has become tame, how can we know if we still have free speech? Like other boundaries, the limits become known only by testing them. But what limits are left? Are they political? Are political ideas taboo?

The old boundaries for political taboos are laying in tatters.  We have seen change.

Abortion, for example, is no awkwardly-whispered taboo word, but has been enshrined as a vaunted “right”.

Likewise, from any background at all, men or women can freely hold key positions of influence in the corporate or political realms.

“Communism” and “Socialism” are no longer ideologies considered dangerously corrosive to Western Democratic societies. They are, in fact, increasingly embraced from college campuses to even the highest levels of government.

Where once people with (for example) Black or Chinese ancestry were commonly called vulgar names, attitudes have shifted to the point that even the allegation of having said them can destroy a career. Times have changed.

“Destroy a Career”. Did you catch that? We’ve found at least one place where speech has a known boundary — where it isn’t entirely free.

A recent news story sheds more light on this question.

When returning to University in Ottawa (Canada), some students expressed their objection to the “Safe Space” speech code. They didn’t appreciate restrictions on their use of swear-words, so they got together and wore matching shirts expressing their contempt.

On their own time, and off-campus, they were photographed wearing shirts which bluntly said, “F*** SAFE SPACE”. Of course, the first word was spelled out completely.

What happened next? It became a national news story. The entire University bent over backwards to express outrage and disappointment that anyone would dare to have the indecency to even think such a thing, let alone wear it.  Some offenders were even (gasp!) “orientation facilitators”. (Whatever that means.)

Sanctions will be issued. (Sanctions! For an off-campus activity! For clothing choices!)

The students offered an apology. They have pledged to be involved in community service both on and off campus throughout the academic year. Community Service! For wearing a shirt that offended political orthodoxy. Here’s part of the apology:

“While our intentions were not to harm or disrespect anyone, the T-shirts in question were without a doubt inappropriate, inconsiderate, offensive and disgraceful. Intent is not an excuse for impact and we take full responsibility for the seriousness of our actions,” the email said.

“In this moment we are reminded of our influence on not just current and incoming Carleton University students but also our community. It pains us to know that we have tarnished the name of our institution and the hard work of thousands of students, staff and faculty in creating a safe and inclusive environment.”

This, by the way, is the same city that a few short years ago, showed such a local commitment to “tolerance” and “safe space” by an angry crowd of protesters that a fire alarm was pulled, and security escorted invited speaker Ann Coulter away from the campus. They could not guarantee her safety, so the event was canceled. (No charges were filed.)

Conclusion? In the name of political correctness, we have voluntarily surrendered our free speech. Some speech has become illegal — but not because it’s defrauding, slandering, or inciting a crime. It is illegal merely because it upsets someone. “Intent is not an excuse for impact” (from the apology) means the subjective feelings of the offended are more relevant than the real actions of the accused.

Speech isn’t truly free anymore.

Matt Barber has learned this for himself. His letter to the editor earned him a Human Rights complaint for his supposedly “anti-gay” writings.

Free Speech: Have you thought about what it is for? Is freedom’s real value in marching lockstep with the majority, or to be that dissenting voice? Whether the criticism is valid isn’t even the point.

Show me any opinion elevated to the place where it may not be openly questioned or disagreed with, and I will show you a prison.

Show me the person who forbids you to disagree, and I will show you your jailer. Or maybe you prefer the term “slave owner.”

Wes Walker is the author of  Blueprint For a Government that Doesn’t Suck.