Communication Law was one of my favorite classes in my college education. What is free speech? Why does it matter? What counts as free speech? What doesn’t count as free speech?
All intriguing questions and all critical to understand. However, people don’t really understand it.
Take for example, the recent story about a a video of fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a hateful, racist song. The University quickly responded with a decisive move closing the fraternity chapter and expelling two of the students.
Did OU have the Right do do it?
Not really. They had the right to close the chapter – that’s at the discretion of any University. They did not have the right to expel the two students – not according to the Supreme Court.
Look, the douchebags in that chapter of that fraternity are racists. Pure and simple. They think they’re better than other people simply due to the color of their skin. They’re despicable. But they also have the right to think whatever they want. And their speech – vulgar, thoughtless and hateful though it was, is protected by the Constitution. A Huffington Post contributor explained it very thoroughly. The University’s actions of expelling the two students would not be allowed according to the Supreme Court. Similar cases have already set the precedent: university’s can’t expel students for what they say.
But did OU do The Right Thing?
Technically, yes. I’d have advised the same. I’d have told them to let the pea-brained jerks take them to court knowing that the University would lose and that it would be just for them to lose – but I’d still have advised the exact same behavior. From a moral and a public image perspective, the University of Oklahoma did the right thing. How could they not? How could they not close the chapter and expel the students when race related turmoil has been in the headlines for the past few years? How could they not take a stand and wholeheartedly denounce that behavior and belief?
The University had absolutely no other choice in this climate but to do what was done. They did the right thing, even though they didn’t have the right to do it.
Sometimes, there is a difference between our Rights and The Right Thing.
Part of me wishes that we could all be levelheaded enough to realize that there is another “Right Thing” to do in situations like this. Yes, respond with appropriate punishment for bad behavior and do something more to encourage change and protect free speech.
You see, we all value self-expression and the freedom to speak our own mind. But do we value it for others? Do we hold dear that other people, people with whom we disagree, should be able to think and say what they want?
We as a society don’t value other’s opinions or their equal right to their own self-expression and freedom to speak. We say “of course, we do!!” with an indignant tone, but how far do we go with it? Most people only care that others have the right of free speech when it doesn’t offend, when it doesn’t hurt, when it agrees with them.
We don’t have such a thing as civil discourse in this country. In fact, my typing this post and saying that “yeah, those guys were jerks, but they have the right to think whatever they want,” will probably make some people mad. No one wants to hear it.
It’s so much easier to respond to hate with equal hate. It’s so much easier to respond with thoughtless, evil opinions with rage and calls for justice.
It’s hard to respond to ignorance with dialogue. It’s hard to respond to vitriol with forgiveness. It’s hard to greet hate with love. But that’s what’s needed if we’re ever going to have change. And that’s exactly what the president of University of Oklahoma’s Black Student Association suggests: forgiveness for the fraternity members involved in a racist sing-along.
How mature and wise is this young man?
I’ve learned a lot in my years in Public Relations, and as person. Some of the lessons apply here.
#1 Respond. The University of Oklahoma didn’t make a mistake in their response. They did the right thing. But so did the young man who called for forgiveness and dialogue.
#2 Ask and listen. Nothing takes the wind out of someone’s angry sails than calmly asking them to explain their perspective and then to listen attentively. It’s a truly powerful approach.
#3 Conversation is the catalyst for change. The only way to open someone else’s mind is to open our own ears – and that’s a two way street. Why do you think that it was so important to the Founding Fathers that first right in our Bill of Rights is the freedom of speech? Why do you think that Voltaire said “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it?”
Valuing freedom of speech is important for so many reasons but here are two big ones: A) free speech is the foundation of liberty and B) only through conversation can anything ever change.
You can’t legislate morality, you can only encourage it.
I don’t like that there is a current of racial divide in this country. I hate it. I hate that this conflict breeds more conflict. But simply denouncing it won’t solve anything. Denounce it and then, ask “why?”
Dig deeper. Don’t skim the surface and call it a day. The conversation isn’t over.