Today, the United States is plagued by political divisiveness, the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades. Political conversations quickly turn hostile as powerful feelings fuel both sides of every issue. It can be easy to fall into the trap of choosing sides and viewing the other as hateful and wrong simply for thinking about an issue differently. However, many seem to forget that the United States has seen worse — at one point, the U.S. was drawn to war, and the country came back from it. If the country wants to return from these polarized times, the only way to get there is through conversation, however uncomfortable it may be.
The beginning of infringements on free speech can be seen all across the country. Many college campuses have banned political speakers as a way to prevent unpopular opinions from causing a scene on campus as reported by the International Dark Web. Other opinion leaders like Prager University have been de-platformed on social media; Fox News reports they are currently in a legal battle with YouTube over claims of unfair censorship. Fox News also reports that State governments have even taken legislative action against certain kinds of speech; New York City has implemented fines for using the term “illegal alien”. Although these bans originally seem like a fix to the situation, they only make the problem worse. The answer to divisive speech is more speech, not less.
Once censorship is given a foothold, it may take over and spread to further infringe on our freedoms. The American Civil Liberty Union states, “The First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content,” and in regard to speech censored on college campuses, “such restrictions deprive students of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with wich they disagree and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive.” Speech is not action. While committing an act of violence is against the law and can be prosecuted in the United States, having the right to free speech is exactly that —speech. When someone crosses the line and moves to hateful or violent action, then the law and the U.S. justice system can step in. Until then, it is important to remember the old saying about sticks and stones.
JMU is a public university that protects all students' rights to free speech, as well as other citizens’ rights to speak on campus. Just recently, a man preaching outside of Carrier Library drew a crowd as he spoke controversially about Christianity and its followers. Many JMU students were seen standing up to him and engaging in dialogue to protest his beliefs. This is a perfect example of why free speech, no matter how hateful, should be given a space to exist. JMU students got a chance to stand up and speak out against the preacher and his controversial beliefs. The preacher also exercised his First Amendment right and was given a space on our public campus to share his views with students and staff. If ideas and beliefs aren't challenged, and those that hold them never learn how to back them up, one can’t say they truly hold those values. Although the preacher may have severely offended many individuals during his tirade, it gave students the opportunity to stand up for what they believed in and gain experience defending their own opinions.
Censorship by those in power is a dangerous road to head down. Censoring free speech was one of the first things Nazi Germany did when Hitler rose to power. The Unived States Holocaust Museum explains that it started out small and quickly snowballed into full-on government oversight of all public speech and knowledge. There stands a memorial today in Berlin of a massive Nazi book burning where over 25,000 “un-nazi” books were burned and public knowledge was lost.
For most, the hardest part of allowing free speech and providing a space for open discussion is seeing the value in ideas that don’t align with their own. If people want to see the country come back together, there needs to be mutual respect and love between all people that think differently. Just like society is starting to see the necessity of racial and ethnic diversity, it’s time we put emphasis on diversity of thought.
Rebecca Cutsinger is a freshman media arts and design major. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.