Columnist writes in defense of offensive speech

US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black served on the court from 1937 to 1971.

US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black served on the court from 1937 to 1971.


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The Northern Iowan (NI) opinion page and social media sites have recently blown up with replies to a March 30 column, but I believe some online responses were directed at the wrong entity. Not only were some people expressing their discontent with the column in question, they also seemed to be under the impression that the NI shouldn’t have published something with which they disagreed.

One online response said  UNI needed to apologize for the column and the NI needed to issue a retraction and apology for publishing it.

A Northern Iowan Student Government (NISG) senator publicly commented, “Northern Iowan should be ashamed for putting out garbage like this,” tagging the NI in the Facebook post. It is concerning to me that someone in a position to potentially influence administrators who have a say in determining the budget for our school publication would express such disdain for an article not even categorized as news.

While I personally thoroughly enjoyed Kyle Day’s column, and many of the replies have been well directed criticisms, some responses clearly express a distaste for freedoms of speech and of the press. All this is to say the right to offend is increasingly being challenged on college campuses.

If you don’t think the right to offensive speech is under attack, then look no further than UNI’s own student conduct code 3.02 for their policy on offensive writings. It states, “Writing offensive and/or inappropriate language or symbols on dry erase boards, bulletin boards, posted signs, door decorations, skywalks, or other public areas are not permitted.”

The NI distributes its papers to the on-campus residence halls to which this applies, and if the culture around offensive speech doesn’t change, it wouldn’t take much for the free press to be deemed unacceptable in public areas. (A clear distinction must be made that opinion articles are not journalism proper, but a student’s rights to expression are not limited to whether or not they’re a journalism major or minor.)

In Iowa’s own landmark Supreme Court case, Tinker v. the Des Moines Independent Community School District, it was stated: “First Amendment rights… are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The First Amendment protects speech and expression restrictions from the federal government, and the Fourteenth Amendment applies those protections to the state and local government. For UNI or any public institution to take a stance in any way contrary to that is to go against the law of the land.

But as the push for limited speech or blocking “hate speech” has come more from students, it is important to note that no matter how you categorize it, it’s still free speech. To those students and community members who found someone else’s unpopular opinion to be unworthy of publication, I urge you to consider what Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black stated in the dissenting opinion for the Communist Party of the United States v. Subversive Activities Control Board.

“I do not believe that it can be too often repeated that the freedoms of speech, press, petition and assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment must be accorded to the ideas we hate, or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish,” Black said.

The courts are quite settled in the matter of hate speech and offensive speech, and even university speech codes. As long as the speech in question does not call for imminent acts of violence  (“fighting words”), then it is constitutionally protected. The precedent is simply not in the favor of restricting speech.

It is important that students know their rights in regards to free speech and challenge those who would like to take advantage of their ignorance. And maybe even more alarming is the possible chilling effect that can occur on campuses because of differences of opinion on what constitutes free speech.

A recent Gallup poll titled “Free Expression on Campus” stated that 54 percent of students think that the climate on the campus prevents their freedom of speech because of the belief that others might find it offensive. Despite not having any political science or related courses, I experience that climate of “non-liberal opinions need not be expressed.”

Do I admit that I found the inflammatory Pepsi commercial funny and possibly an accurate depiction of what social media political “slacktivism” looks like? Or wait out the seven minutes of intense criticisms of everyone else not on board being told how it’s completely insensitive and they need to accept that position?

I wanted to hear people be allowed to finish their sentences, and I encourage students to fight to have their voices heard. The NI could use more conservative columnists. Even more libertarians, socialists or actual Nazis if you’re out there. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and the more controversial opinions we know about, the better we can equip ourselves to challenge them. Like Justice Black, don’t be afraid to be the voice of dissent.

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