Most people tend to agree that freedom of speech must be allowed for differing viewpoints to prosper, but they do so only when their own sensitivity is not being hurt. How far do any of us go defending views that are contrary to our own? Should we protect what we clearly think is hate speech? The 17th annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom given Nov. 9 by Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School and the current president of the American Civil Liberties Union, brought these contentious questions out into the open.

The central idea behind Strossen’s stance is what she calls content neutrality. It’s not very far from a First Amendment absolutist point of view, which holds that speech must be allowed regardless of its content.

As Strossen correctly pointed out, most people seem to object to “just one thing” that sounds obviously wrong to them. For Jewish people this might be a denial of the Holocaust; for feminists it might be pornography that they think objectifies women; and for Muslims it could be an inflammatory cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. However, if we try to account for all such exceptions and satisfy everyone, we will find ourselves left with very few things that we are free to say. This is why the content must not be taken into account if one truly supports free speech.

An absolutist point of view obviously means that people will sometimes be exposed to speech that has zero constructive value and whose sole aim is to spread hatred. Nevertheless, we must respect people’s ability to weed out the nonsensical from the sensible and count on the well-meaning members of society to counter absurd arguments with logical ones. The alternative – shielding people from ideas that might cause greater harm – gives rise to an omnipotent thought police, and the result is an Orwellian society. We must realize that once we trust a chosen few to filter out unsafe information for us, we allow all of our thoughts to be shaped by them. Being exposed to stupid and at times dangerous ideas clearly seems like the lesser evil.

Strossen gave several concrete examples to explain her view on free speech, among them the ACLU’s controversial defense of Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, the North American Man/Boy Love Association and Neo-Nazi groups like the National Socialist Party of America. As Strossen pointed out multiple times, the ACLU does not support or oppose these groups’ views per se, but it supports their freedom to express their views.

The next logical question, however, is what should we do when free speech can cause physical harm as opposed to merely hurting feelings? A University professor asked Strossen for her opinion on certain anti-abortionist websites that list the names and addresses of doctors who perform abortions and advocates killing those doctors. Should these websites be protected by the First Amendment? Are they not equivalent to giving shelter to a criminal or shouting fire in a crowded theater?

Given the extreme nature of the example, Strossen hedged a little and didn’t give a clear answer. However, she did point to Supreme Court precedent on freedom of speech. The current stance of court, as determined by Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), says all speech is protected by the First Amendment unless it can potentially cause “imminent lawless action.”

Whether the websites in question pose the threat of an “imminent lawless action” and whether one should agree with the Supreme Court’s view are contentious questions that should indeed be debated. More debate on these issues will certainly clear up the confusion surrounding free speech and may point out loopholes in the definition of “imminent lawless action.” The first step is to realize that the ideas, some of which clearly feel so wrong and nonsensical in the first place warrant debate instead of outright censorship.

Anindya Bhadra is a Rackham student and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.

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