Not so free speech

In the current political atmosphere, the hardest part of entering a public debate — other than avoiding the social media mob — is avoiding an argument that will automatically make half your audience dismiss it as mere partisan hackery.

The freedom of speech in this country is under attack from multiple directions. Some of the oppressive speech codes are perpetrated by social media giants including Apple, Twitter, Google and Facebook. We’ve seen purges and censorship of ideas that are unpopular or deemed offensive.

And with President Trump’s recent and repeated pronouncements that “fake news media” is the enemy of the people, we see rhetoric coming from the bully pulpit. Defenders of the First Amendment worry about what that might mean for publishers of content critical of the administration.

So, let’s just get it out there: the press is not the enemy of the people. Full stop. But neither are those espousing unpopular — even offensive — ideas. The whole point of freedom of speech is to protect those ideas that may be problematic, even if they have no redeeming value.

Offensive speech is not a violation of anyone’s rights. Equating hurtful speech with “violence” stifles legitimate debate. It violates the rights of those whose dissenting ideas are censored or even criminalized. I don’t buy psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s claim that speech can be violent if it “causes harm.” By that loose definition, selling a Twinkie— given that junk food can cause harm to one’s health— could be considered a form of violence.

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