“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”
If you pay attention to the news (or read any Facebook comments), you may have heard a mention or two lately about the First Amendment. Let me make this very clear: the right to free speech is incredibly important, but it is not unlimited.
To quickly detail some of the ways in which free speech rights have been curtailed by the Supreme Court, you can get in trouble for: “fighting words,” meaning words that incite violence or panic, threats, slander and other more technical types of speech like copyright violation.
The government has often been hesitant to curtail free speech, and rightfully so, because I think very few of us would like to live in such an Orwellian society.
All of that being said, I think that the First Amendment has been taken out of context recently and instead used as a rallying cry for divisiveness (think your 50-year-old uncle with the Confederate flag as a Facebook profile picture). Now more than ever, it’s of the utmost importance that we preserve this right for its original purpose of expressing dissent and unpopular opinions. As a queer, very liberal woman, I’m probably the last person most would expect to hold this opinion, but hear me out.
When someone is spreading false information and hatred, the only thing that can stop them is my First Amendment right, my constitutionally protected ability to speak out and stand up for myself and others. If someone has a different opinion than I do, my First Amendment right enables me to engage in a discourse with them, perhaps helping change their mind or even my own.
Isn’t that one of the most important reasons we’re in college? To learn and grow and challenge ourselves? I’ll be completely honest; when I first started taking political science courses for my major, I actively avoided taking any classes with professors who had a reputation for being conservative. It wasn’t until I had to take a class with one of these professors that I learned what I had been missing.
Being in a position where I had to explain my beliefs and opinions helped me to mature as a person and a student. It actually reinforced most of my previously held beliefs and made me understand why I think what I do. On a few occasions, I’ve even changed my opinion because of a conversation I’ve had with someone whose perspective is different than mine. That’s an incredibly important concept because you aren’t always going to be surrounded by people who agree with you, but that’s okay because it means we get a lifetime full of learning and growing and changing.
So next time someone disagrees with you, invoke your First Amendment right and go learn.