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Upholding Free Speech Begins At Home


I don’t talk to my parents much about politics anymore. Like many families across this country we avoid that subject, as it causes more rifts among us than we prefer to acknowledge. Life is simply more pleasant when we ignore the ideological differences that separate us.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. At one time I proudly touted my parents’ values and views. I attended pro-abortion rallies and wore anti-Bush buttons. I stood my liberal ground as best I could (given how little I actually liked politics), and would passionately battle anyone who seemed even remotely conservative. I couldn’t stand hearing opposing views, though, partly because they infuriated me, but mostly because I felt incapable of eloquently defending my side of the debate.

Yet my parents, as liberal as they were—and still are—stood firmly for the First Amendment. They weren’t shy about their disdain for Republicans and conservatives, and they were incredibly vocal for the causes they defended. At the same time, they raised us kids with the belief and understanding that we all—liberal, conservative, man, woman, black, white, or whatever—had the right to our beliefs, values, and voices.

Defending an Opponent’s Right to Speak

I often wondered how they could stomach listening to someone they disagreed with, then to go further to actually defend that person’s right to say such despicable things. Since we’re from Kansas, we were well aware of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist thugs before they ever became national news. We saw them protest school graduations and proms before they ever took to protesting military funerals, yet my parents ensured we kids understood the value of their right to stage those protests and voice their beliefs, no matter how hurtful they were to others.

I regularly heard of the need to protect the speech of groups whose message was detestable.

The ACLU was widely praised in our home, as you can imagine. I regularly heard of the need to protect the speech of groups whose message was detestable, such as when ACLU defended the KKK’s right to hold a march in Maryland.

My parents sought to raise us without bubbles. We were well aware that there were people we disagreed with, and while we could certainly think they were complete morons or imbeciles, and while we might have the right to walk out, protest, or voice our own opposition, we had no right to silence them or prevent their views from being voiced.

My parents went beyond this, too, insisting that we needed to seek out knowledge even on topics we found contemptible. When I complained about being expected to know anything about the Bible when I was not a Christian, I was instructed that knowledge should be sought even on topics we disliked so as to help us become well-rounded individuals.

Defend It in Your Classrooms

It’s perhaps no surprise that as a young liberal I loved shows like “The West Wing” and movies like “The American President.” I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I’m still moved by the speech in the latter when President Shepherd defends free speech:

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.’

Our classrooms today are far from bastions of free speech, though. We don’t celebrate or defend the rights of everyone to have his or her own views, values, morals, and principles—and to then voice them. No, we demand safe spaces and trigger warnings. We are told that the right to not be offended or hurt by differences in opinions outweighs our right to actually have and speak those differing opinions.

While my left-leaning parents raised us to champion the right of everyone to believe as he or she saw fit and express those beliefs publicly, today’s social justice warrior generation upholds feelings and vigorously fights to keep those feelings from encountering different viewpoints. Seeing 40 percent of my generation believing it’s okay to limit speech if it’s offensive to minorities leaves me wondering what the hell happened in the past couple decades to have caused this shift. This is not what I was taught and raised on—not even on the other side of the ideological aisle.

But our society has changed, even beyond college campuses and this delicate millennial generation. We shake our heads and tsk-tsk the ridiculous actions of butt-hurt students who would rather pull a fire alarm than risk hearing a conflicting viewpoint, but to some extent we all build safe spaces in our social media and our daily interactions.

Setting Personal Boundaries Is One Thing

We may still believe others have a right to their views and opinions, and we might champion their right to express those publicly, yet we also firmly hold to our right to not be burdened by those different opinions. We close ourselves off from views we don’t like. We hide friends and family who disagree with us. We surround ourselves with seemingly like-minded people who bolster our opinions rather than challenge them. We cut ourselves off from learning why those opposite us believe as they do, instead choosing to make assumptions about their stances.

It is our right to self police our circles, to block folks we find insufferable, and to do so as we see fit.

But that is where the real difference is. While most of us are likely to take measures to determine which views we will and will not expose ourselves to, and most of us are more than willing to choose safe topics like the weather and movies to avoid discussing anything that would lead to ideological dysfunction, we would not—hopefully—go to such extreme measures to ultimately silence the opposition we encounter.

We might walk away. We might disengage. We might choose to keep our young kids home from school so they aren’t exposed to a teaching we find contradictory to our values. It is our right to self police our circles, to block folks we find insufferable, and to do so as we see fit. This was that freedom we found in the Internet to decide what information we would digest rather than rely solely on the voices and opinions that landed on our doorstep in the morning.

Yet this isn’t enough for some, such those behind the new Twitter Trust and Safety Council who apparently felt we couldn’t be trusted to manage our own feeds, but needed their brilliant sensitivity and know-better-ness to protect our delicate feelings from such horrifying things as a difference of opinion or value.

Silencing Others Is Another

It’s one thing to protest a speaker whose stance we find appalling; it’s another to work to block them from being able to speak at all. It’s one thing to choose to walk away from a discussion; it’s another to try to silence another’s voice entirely. When we choose the latter routes, what do we teach our children about freedom, respect, and society?

It’s one thing to protest a speaker whose stance we find appalling; it’s another to work to block them from being able to speak at all.

My parents and I no longer share many of the same beliefs, but that’s okay. I am in no hurry to discuss the current election season with them, nor am I all that eager to follow them on social media again. To be completely honest, I’m perfectly content keeping our debates to whether my beloved IPA is better than their preferred imperial stout. I’d rather share laughs about their grandkids’ latest antics than to discuss our different views on the role of government in our daily life.

Yet I hope they understand that while I no longer stand on their political side, and have walked away from most of what they tried to teach me, I will forever appreciate their passion for our shared freedom of speech and their insistence that we kids fight for everyone’s right to not only disagree, but to also equally express our beliefs freely, passionately, and publicly.