The founders of the United States created our country on many guiding principles, the first being freedom of speech and the press according to the Bill of Rights. Despite it being a value settled centuries ago, it is a concept that contemporary society still grapples with today. Specifically, the limits of free speech are contested when discussing mainstream media, speakers on university campuses and words considered hate speech.
I argue that those with political or capital power tend to reap the benefits of free speech more so than oppressed groups. This is evident when evaluating proposed state legislations punishing students who protest speakers and prominent media figures saying controversial phrases.
The Daily Summer Editorial Board recently highlighted two Michigan bills that give public institutions the power to disrupt peaceful assembly given the correct certain circumstances and punish students for participating in these assemblies. State senators produced these bills because of the many instances of students preventing controversial speakers from doing events on campus. The bills look to preserve free speech; however, by doing so they restrict peaceful assembly and protest, another avenue of free speech.
The instances that have sparked the arguments in support of these bills are mainly those such as events with Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley. These events ended with violence and fear at the university, an outcome most people agree should be avoided. Personally, I don’t feel that violence is the answer to fighting these ideas.
On the other hand, many protesters were not those who simply disagreed with Milo Yiannopoulos or Coulter’s political stances, but rather felt similarly attacked and unsafe by their messages. Yiannopoulos has a history of prejudice, whether it be from his racially-motivated attacks on Leslie Jones, or his denunciation of a transgender student. For these reasons, students often feel threatened by prejudice and bigotry being preached on their own campus. Therefore, I very well could be privileged not to feel compelled to violence, as it could feel like self-defense. Of course, I don’t condone violence, but I have not had to endure the conditions that make violence seem necessary.
Violence has obviously been the catalyst behind these bill, as it not only looks to improve free speech, but also safety. But a byproduct of the bills is restricting the free speech of the ones who feel threatened the most. Ultimately, it protects the powerful speakers who already have political capital and dismisses and punishes the oppressed who stand to lose the most.
This also stands true when evaluating how uses of “free speech” are treated among celebrities, notably Bill Maher and Kathy Griffin. Recently, both comedians sparked controversy by pushing the boundaries of acceptable free speech. Bill Maher referred to himself as a “house n*****” in a slavery joke on his show “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Kathy Griffin posted a photo with a violently decapitated Trump head.
While both were distasteful jokes, society criticized Griffin much more vehemently than they did Maher. In fact, in the YouTube video in which Bill discusses the incident with Ice Cube and Symone Sanders, the comments are filled with praise for Maher and hatred for Sanders and Ice Cube’s criticisms.
After Sanders notes that the history of house slaves is not only Black but primarily female, one commenter goes as far to say, “Symone Sanders is a disgusting racist who is in no position to lecture others on racism. Hypocritical, disgusting, racist, horrible person.” This comment has ninety-three likes.
The video itself also has four thousand more dislikes than likes. While I grant that Ice Cube is far from the posterchild for prejudice-free America, the video speaks to the pass that Maher gets because of his political capital. Not only is he free from criticism, those who object to his use are condemned.
On the other hand, CNN fired Kathy Griffin and many claim her career to be over. While she did make a very insensitive joke toward a sitting president, it sparked a much fiercer blowback that Maher’s incident did. Both in the name of comedy, though only Maher is free from criticism. I love Bill Maher and watch him weekly, but it’s clear that he is benefitting from privilege that grants him more free speech power. And though Griffin is a powerful woman, she is a woman nonetheless and has been afforded far less room to push the societal boundaries of free speech.
The free speech incidents surrounding university campuses and comedians have showcased how the free speech of disenfranchised groups in America are put behind others. There can be arguments over which jokes are tasteful or what form of protest is appropriate, but we shouldn’t punish those already at a disadvantage in society. If you value free speech and its principles, value everyone’s free speech.