How free is our free speech?

Kiran Singh, Beyond Liberty Editor

Imagine you’re having a casual conversation with someone, and they didn’t appreciate something you say. They tell you that what you said shouldn’t be repeated, as it might be perceived as offensive. Is this precautionary effort a form of oppression? Was your word choice or idea hateful and marginalizing in the first place? Here at Beyond Liberty, we seek to explore the extent of the protections of the First Amendment in the individual liberty of free speech.
Some people claim “all speech is free speech,” while others argue for a line between free speech and hate speech. Some people condemn political correctness for oppressing free speech; others recognize it as a promotion of empathetic understanding.
What counts as free speech? Does political correctness inhibit honest and diverse discussion? What does the first amendment even protect? In the 1971 Supreme Court case Cohen v. California, the court ruled that the Constitution protects the right to “use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages.” Does this mean that an alt-right speech laced with neo-Nazi sentiment is just as protected as MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech? The short answer is yes. Someone’s personal beliefs, no matter how offensive one might perceive them to be, are still free speech and nothing less.
On the other end of the spectrum of controversy lies political correctness. It originally involved avoiding using offensive statements against marginalized groups to recognize sensitivity towards certain issues. However, many would agree that political correctness has now quite literally just turned into a meme.
Political correctness is criticized for oppressing people’s abilities to speak their minds freely, causing some people avoid talking about certain issues altogether in fear of being labelled “insensitive”. Does this hinder productive discourse? That depends on its implementation.
If someone says something offensive, what should you do? Shut them down and demand them to refrain from repeating that phrase, or explain why it might be demeaning and ask their intention behind saying it? Clearly, the latter is the more civil solution.
Ideally, political correctness shouldn’t be a movement at all. Having freedom of speech also comes with a responsibility to be respectful and understanding towards sensitive terms and issues, which, if carried out faithfully, erases any need for political correctness.
While we must take advantage of our privilege to live in a society where our Constitution guarantees our right to speak freely, we must also remember that a difference of opinion comes from a difference in experience. What one person sees as neo-Nazism could just be a lack of exposure to certain issues; what one person sees as Communist propaganda might just be a heightened expression of empathy. Perhaps, headlines of “conservative ignorance” and “liberal oppression” could be avoided through a little more experience, a little more understanding, and much more open discussion. The freedom of speech comes with a responsibility to listen. Do you fulfill yours?