Free Speech is for the Speech You Hate, Not for the Speech You Like

The test of a society's commitment to freedom of expression lies in its defense of marginalized forms of speech. I say in class, free speech is for speech that you hate, not for speech that you like. The logic of the principle is simple: we don't need to protect society's treasured ideas and institutions--they pose no danger to us; we pose no danger to them. It is for those forms of expression that disturb, offend, and even anger us that we actually need freedom of expression, as these types of speech are those in danger of being suppressed if society were not serious enough about a democratic culture. --Florin T. Hilbay

This week I've reviewed a series of articles spanning a Bell's Curve of polarities in opinions, practices and policies regarding freedom of speech on campuses. I confess to feeling deeply troubled.

Forty-three years ago I was in high school in a conservative-leaning town in the South. The Vietnam war was still eating away at us, desegregation was still clawing its way into our consciousness and the War on Poverty had been declared, but there were still no arms with which to fight.

It was a tumultuous, disruptive and extraordinary time to be alive. I was the co-editor of our high school newspaper. A young, feisty and incredibly smart journalism teacher was assigned to us that year.

She took us through all of the basics of journalism and helped me get an internship under the formidable Kathryn Duff, Editor at our local paper. My teacher encouraged me to write and submit articles to what were then the Saturday Evening Post and Holiday Magazine. I received scholarships from both for college.

My teacher was a fierce editor. I've never had one of her calibre again. She forced me to think about what I was really trying to say, not just how I was trying to say it.

She left at the end of my junior year for a job at the capitol in New Mexico. She gave me a gift during her short time, an extraordinary season of encouragement to deconstruct the premise and practice of freedom of speech. She taught us to look at the underbelly of our fears and isms.

She was not popular with some faculty and some administrators. But she was my hero. She shook me up and I am so grateful. I wrote about the war, the racial imbalance in our troops, institutionalized racism in leadership election processes on my campus (I was a class officer).

And, our small newspaper staff shook up some things ourselves. I believe we carved a bit off the deeply embedded roots of policies and practices in our school system and community that were designed to preserve white supremacy.

When my extraordinary teacher departed, a new teacher was hired. I suspect she was instructed to put an immediate stop to the free-wheeling thought and expression that had been cultivated in our newspaper staff. Perhaps she acted on her own. She is dead now and we will never know.

She shut down any publication of anything meatier than football scores and 4-H club. No questioning of authority or status quo was allowed. After my first three articles were censored under her tenure and pleas to our administration went nowhere, I quit my post as co-editor. Some other team members and I started an underground newspaper. There was no Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or email.

The administration quickly sanctioned us and I received a warning by the Vice Principal that I was inciting potential violence by talking so openly about racial tensions. My status on an honors group was threatened if I didn't cease writing about contentious ideas. I gave up and graduated.

Forty-three years ago seems like a short time when I read today about censorship on campuses by administrators, often fueled by what students do not want to hear because they feel triggered. 

I am deeply concerned about the censorship crawling out of this Pandora's box. In recent years, I have been many places in the world talking about the death spiral effects on society of racism, gender-ism, sexism, homophobia, trans*phobia and censorship on all of us.

It never occurred to me that those of us who are fighting to create freedom and stop violence would find ourselves unable to speak of these problems for fear that we would use words or images that would trigger students so deeply that they could not or would not participate in the dialogue.

I don't know how to change anything for the better if we do not or cannot name it, discuss it, debate it and yes, disagree. 

I've been accosted by ultra-conservative protesters who have called me some despicable names (Fred Phelps comes to mind). I've been arrested for civil disobedience for daring to sing a church hymn about freedom and unity in a denominational meeting that excluded the voices of gay clergy.

I've encouraged young activists in China and on fundamentalist religious college campuses to come out about their sexual orientation and gender identity knowing that they might be punished, expelled, imprisoned and even killed.

I can relate to the impact of saying what one believes to be true when other people don't want to hear it. That is why I feel alarmed today about the campus-based and society-wide movement toward censorship.

This movement, in part, emerged out of the last forty-five years of activism to improve life for those who had been excluded and silenced. Creative protesters formed names for these oppressions, marginalizations, discriminations and stigmatizations and photographed them, memorialized them in art and music and literature.

They raised awareness and forced people to see atrocities and admit to them. I am one of those who did this work. I never contemplated a day when these expressions of freedom would be considered weapons against those they were designed to free. 

I have no doubt that the majority of what I wrote 43-years ago would be censored by students and administrators today. The imagery that I chose would be offensive, perceived as appropriating or co-opting. But, for that time, it was revolutionary and it did what we hoped to do. We blew a hole in a wall of white supremacy and some people were able to get through to the other side and keep going.

The first persons of color (then called black and Chicano) were elected as class officers and cheerleaders in that extraordinary year in a town in the middle of nowhere in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Some of them and some of us who were subsequently censored by faculty and administrators went on to become city managers, mayors, public activists, advocates and educational administrators ourselves.

Our high school journalism instructor taught us well about the gift of differing opinions, civil disobedience, freedom of speech and more. I am grieving today for young adults, faculty members and administrators who may no longer feel free enough or psychologically resilient enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird together and unpack it for what it was and is today. 

What we fear is sometimes exactly what we need to face.

Freedom of speech is the crucible in which real freedom is born.

This column is dedicated to Tam Baldwin, advertising manager for the Abilene High School Battery in 1971. Without her dedication, the work of our team would never have made it to print.