Voqal DEI Spotlight: Free Speech ≠ No Consequences

In this month’s DEI spotlight, Voqal’s Mary Coleman takes a look at the interplay between freedom of speech and the consequences that result from that freedom. 

In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled in Schenck v. United States to limit free speech as outlined in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The judges ruled that while you are free to say anything, such as “Fire!” in a crowded theater, you are not free from being prosecuted or receiving consequences from such actions.

While the ruling still stands, a lot has changed in the last 100 years. Society and technology evolved and intersected, bringing us social media platforms, a plethora of entertainment venues and options, and access to people and ideas the world over. We can debate many issues related to these developments and their effects on human interactions, but at the core is the need for a renewed discussion on what is “dangerous” speech, especially in relation to how it impacts free speech.

Should dangerous only relate to putting people in physical harm’s way, or should it also include emotional and psychological harm? What does it mean for private companies to define and determine what constitutes as dangerous speech from their employees, stakeholders, and consumers? Should they not be legally and morally allowed to take actions based on these definitions?

We may not be consciously in this debate right now, but it has reached a critical point, where we are weighing the right to voice an opinion – to enact the right to free speech – against the consequences of voicing that opinion. The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece titled Land of the Free (and Fettered) Speech in an attempt to weigh in on the debate, using hand-picked examples of how the “fettering” of speech is leading us on a dangerous path away from free speech as intended in the Constitution and toward groupthink.

Arguments like those in the Wall Street Journal miss the point that in today’s world, we should not be claiming that free speech should be unfettered to protect basic freedoms, but rather we should be defining “dangerous” in ways to mitigate the harm caused by modern language and speech. The fact that the author can point to examples of people receiving backlash from opinions they publicly shared is a direct counter to their argument: they were able to speak, thus their speech was not fettered.

What the author and those who agree with his viewpoint miss is that if one shares an opinion, be it political, social, cultural, or about their favorite sports team, it does not mean they get a pass in dealing with any consequences, especially when opinions can include harmful misinformation or biases about a group or individual.

Like any freedom outlined in the Constitution, there are limits for the protection of society, and there will always be those who exploit those boundaries and ambiguities for their personal agenda. In the Wall Street Journal article, the author outlines the case of an ousted Boeing executive held accountable for statements made about female combat pilots in 1987. In this case, there should have been grace for how his viewpoints may have shifted over the last 20 years. However, this highlights the true dilemma at play here: that anyone should be free from the consequences of sharing an opinion, no matter when, simply because free speech exists. Yes, grace could have played a role in this case, but a private company has the right to oust an executive just as the executive has a right to voice his opinion.

In other examples, though, the article only highlights how people received or did not receive, penalties for their speech. In one such example, the author points to a statement by NFL player Richard Sherman that he stood by “All Lives Matter” in 2016 that seemed to have gone unnoticed in the public debate. Sherman was not ousted or otherwise fined for this opinion. However, a recent similar statement by a Sacramento TV sports announcer led to their firing. What he overlooks is that a private TV station has the right to let go of someone voicing an opinion against the station’s values, and the Seattle Seahawks, the private NFL team for which Sherman played in 2016, has the right to do the opposite even if they don’t feel the same. Free speech being fettered is not an issue in these instances; consequences, as they often do, just played out differently.

J.K. Rowling can voice her transphobic opinions about gender identity, but that she can use the backlash as proof free speech is being hamstrung is laughable. More people just understand their societal power in not supporting someone to whom they are not valued-aligned and who share harmful, dangerous thoughts about a group of people. Those with controversial or fringe opinions about any topic can and should share their opinion, but they do not have the entitlement or protection to not hear others also exercising their free speech against the shared opinion. They also do not have the automatic right to share those opinions on private campuses, privately-owned platforms, or in other private spaces.

The privilege to assume you are entitled to speech without consequences is often held by white folks who are not used to being questioned or disrupted in their comfort of being in the world. As I write this, I am aware there are those who will read this and disagree and may choose to tell me directly or demand a boycott of my blog posts, which is their right. If it is unpopular enough to warrant a wave of hate mail, it is a consequence I must accept before voicing my opinion. Not sharing opinions for fear of retribution is what I see as the slippery slope, something the Wall Street Journal author, Rowling, Salmon Rushdie, and others seem to be missing. You may not like the result, but saying there should be no result is what will lead to a truly groupthink society.