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No free pass on free speech?

On some occasions, I wear a tie to work.

I see it as a nod to my father, a longtime newspaper publisher and my greatest professional role model.

One of my favorites is a red, white, and blue tie that states “freedom of speech,” “freedom of the press,” “freedom of religion,” “right to assemble.”

As a journalism student, we were taught the importance of the First Amendment, which provides that “Congress make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble.”

I remember the lessons on the importance of free speech, that those who are uncontroversial don’t really benefit from the First Amendment. It is those on the “fringes” who need it. That a free press has helped protect it — if we moved toward restricting free speech, there is an inherent danger. Without free speech, a free press, or the right to assemble, unchecked power could emerge.

We’ve seen the descent of nations when dissention and opposition are crushed.

Thinking of those examples is why I was troubled by an article I saw recently that was penned by data scientist and writer Nate Silver. In his “Silver Bulletin” newsletter, a piece was titled, “Free speech is in trouble … Young liberals are abandoning it.”

The article referred to a survey that among other things included six sets of examples — three “controversial” conservative viewpoints and three “controversial” liberal viewpoints. The question then was asked whether students would tolerate speakers on those subjects on their campus. It was conducted by College Pulse and FIRE — the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a pro-free speech advocacy group, and included thousands of students at different types of universities.

Here were the topics:

∫ Transgender people have a mental disorder.

∫ Abortion should be completely illegal.

∫ Black Lives Matter is a hate group.

∫ The Second Amendment should be repealed so that guns can be confiscated.

∫ Religious liberty is used as an excuse to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

∫ Structural racism maintains inequality by protecting white privilege.

One of the key takeaways from the survey were the results to the question, “What percent of college students would allow a controversial speaker on campus?”

With those students who identified liberal, between 16% and 32% (numbers ranged by topic) would allow a controversial conservative speaker on the above topics, while between 61% and 80% percent would allow a controversial liberal speaker.

Among those students who identify as conservative, between 55% and 68% would allow a controversial conservative speaker, while between 56% and 62% percent would allow a controversial liberal speaker.

Silver boiled the results into his article’s thesis: “College students aren’t very enthusiastic about free speech. In particular, that’s true for liberal or left-wing students, who are at best inconsistent in their support of free speech and have very little tolerance for controversial speech they disagree with.” (I must add that Silver is not writing the story in a pro-liberal, pro-conservative, or even pro-free speech stance. It’s an observational piece that frames the topic well. Here is a link: natesilver.net/p/free-speech-is-in-trouble).

Silver mentions that college campuses have long been beacons for free speech, but that sentiment seems to be shifting rapidly.

Why?

Silver gives five reasons, which are hard to contend with, ranging from popular “woke” ideas being less tolerant of free speech than traditional liberalism to adults being hypocritical when it comes to free speech (think Elon Musk buying Twitter to support free speech yet suspending from the platform those he disagrees with).

I think it hits on a growing concern I have, especially in my seat watching how people respond to the media.

Many do not want to hear the other side. They have their mind made up and dig in their heels by calling any opposite opinion “disinformation.”

Truth, to many, has become truth in the eye of the beholder, and the ability to learn from someone one disagrees with has all but become extinct.

I have concerns that, as free speech erodes, it causes a slippery slope that leads us further and further away from the ideals our Founding Fathers envisioned for us.

Agree with it or not, we should all be concerned about free speech, free assembly, free press, etc., as it ultimately allows for checks and balances when the government gets out of control.

Young college graduates, who, as Silver points out, “will make up the next generation of journalists, business leaders, politicians,” will have more at their fingertips than any generation. Access to technology and the ability to do tasks more efficiently than ever will continue to expand what is possible.

But, if we continue to move more intolerantly by eroding free speech, I’d argue it will all seem like one step forward and two steps back as we expose ourselves to repeating past historical mistakes.

Alpena native Jeremy Speer is the publisher of The Courier in Findlay, Ohio, the Sandusky (Ohio) Register, The Advertiser-Tribune in Tiffin, Ohio, the Norwalk (Ohio) Reflector, and Review Times in Fostoria, Ohio. He can be reached at jeremyspeer@thecourier.com.

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