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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Right to Free Speech under Threat from the Dilution of Language

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Debates surrounding freedom of speech have resurged in our national discourse with vigor and determinacy over the past year, especially given the new standard for public decorum set by our most recent Presidential election. Disenchanted by political promises and unimpressed by the strategic veneers of government officials, a considerable number of Americans began advocating for more openness and honesty in politics. It is this sentiment that motivated so much of America to defend President-elect Trump’s coarse and insolent statements about women, ethnic minorities, Muslims, and immigrants.

Similarly, it is this notion- the belief that our nation is in need of more candid leadership – that has inspired much of America to excuse this continued neglect for dignified speech even from the instated President. Many of those who have grown weary from discussions of political correctness contend that Trump’s outspoken nature is a refreshing expression of honesty, drawing on the First Amendment to defend his rights and even arguing that free of speech is under attack.

Such concerns regarding the protection of free speech are not unwarranted, but they are misguided. The most pressing threat to freedom of speech in our contemporary nation is not a surge in politically correct lexicon, nor is it the extinction of self-expression.  Rather, the threat with which we should be most concerned is the abuse of the protection itself. When our nation’s leaders demonstrate a neglect for the decorum that makes free speech worth preserving, they not only obfuscate the meaning of the term, but they deprive it of context and render it powerless.

The beauty of free speech lies in its capacity to beget useful debate, to promote honesty and diversify power, to enable a generative exchange of ideas, and to empower critical thinking. Those are the qualities by which free speech lends value to our nation and becomes worthy of defense. If we defend free speech on the basis of its capacity to protect verbal aggression, to allow for insolence and obscenity, and to safeguard hateful remarks, we degrade its value and lose sight of its true function. In the long run, it is those sorts of feeble and self-serving arguments that pose an increasing threat to free speech, as they confuse the basis of the right itself. When we over-use the freedom of speech argument in defense of injurious language, we dilute its importance to our nation and stray from its ultimate purpose.

Oct 13, 2017

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