Fulfilling the First Amendment

I encountered quite a few exercises of the First Amendment during my time at Notre Dame. In the last year, however, the exercise of those rights has become more frequent, and first principles debates more contentious. Though I was unable to speak with the Washington Post panel due to some scheduling issues, I’ll share my thoughts here. Freedom of expression faces direct, if hidden, assault from some who wish to prevent the marginalized from speaking their truth. What does this assault look like, and how can students on university campuses respond?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is the First Amendment. Though there are many legal differences regarding the application of this at public vs. private schools, I’ve written this essay with the (imperfect) assumption that this is also a social norm, upheld by individuals and institutions in American life.

Freedom of expression is a value from the Enlightenment tradition: in a self-governing society, a people can grasp at the Truth through open debate in the marketplace of ideas. Though not explicit in the Constitution, the principle of free speech holds a clear teleology for the formation of a just society. Individuals put forth ideas, and an educated populace will collectively speak their truths into one, great American Truth, a set of just social norms.

Jay Rosen, an NYU professor, recently tweeted a story about the dangers of assuming that journalists should treat all speech as equally valid of public interest reporting. His full essay is worth the read, but I’ll reproduce his (perhaps apocryphal) story below:

During the siege [of Sarajevo in 1996] a correspondent from a Western news agency is contacted by an intermediary, someone he knows, who has an offer: to go out one night with Bosnian Serb snipers and see for yourself what they do.
A deal is struck, and he accompanies the men to one of their perches in the hills above the city, where they train their rifles on civilians, who might be trying to cross the street. This is where the siege “happens,” in a sense. This is the action itself.
“Come here,” says one of the men, after he has located a target. The sniper motions to take a look. The reporter, who in his own mind had come to see, leans over and peers for a second or two through the lens of the rifle.
He sees two people who think they are out of range standing in an alley, completely vulnerable. That is when the sniper, retaking the lens, says: which one, left or right?
This alarms the reporter. “I have no answer to that,” he says. “I didn’t come to be involved in what you do.” The sniper throws back his head to laugh, and returns to his rifle. There is a pause. In two quick bursts he kills both people just seen through the lens.
“You should have answered,” the sniper says to the Western correspondent. “You could have saved one.” [Source: http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/03/01/svd_kpln.html]

Prof. Rosen applies this lesson to journalists, but it is just as relevant on a college campus. Student groups and professors have a responsibility to own the speech that they sponsor on campus. Free speech has been cited at many institution as a defense when individuals invite a speaker like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopolous, or Charles Murray, whose main draw seems to be controversy rather than content. This is a distortion of the purpose of having free speech. Unless directly inciting violence, these individuals are entitled to say what they want. But they are best left shouting their invective from a street corner. Giving them the power of a stage, or an honorary degree, sponsors and amplifies their speech. That underlying Enlightenment idea of orienting the conversation toward Truth still applies, and if you bring Yiannopolous to campus (or Coulter to the Post, for that matter), you own their ideas as a contribution to what you believe to be Truth.

I don’t think that speakers invited to a college campus should be shut down, any more than a production of Julius Caesar. But protests? Boycotts? Signs? Politicking? Go for it. Groups who invite bigoted speakers point to those reactions and say they infringe upon free speech. Untrue. The response is exactly the kind of speech the First Amendment is supposed to protect. The moral wrongness of providing a platform to bigotry deserves to be placed squarely on the host’s shoulders, and it is absolutely everyone’s right to use their own free speech and expression to achieve this. March chanting into the marketplace of ideas!

For campus organizers, it is also worth knowing that the power granted to offensive speakers does not have to remain with them. Walking out of Pence’s commencement speech took some of the power of that moment back from him, and gave it to people who had been harmed by his policies. It’s an act of reclamation and counter-narrative. Though the invitation of bigotry shows entrenched power of injustice, marginalized people do have the ability to take some of that power back.

Recently, the Supreme Court decided a case that will likely allow Washington’s football team to reinstate its trademark over an offensive name. I am opposed to their use of this name, but I do support the court decision. This particular case was not brought by the football team, but by a leader of an Asian-American band whose name was a derogatory term for Asian appearance, The Slants. In being proud of their identity, the band sought to reclaim this name, much in the same way “queer” is now in widespread use in the LGBTQ community. The government had classified as derogatory the names of both the football team and the band, and had refused to grant trademark status.

The enforcement might have been equal, but the consequences were not. One group receives millions of dollars in revenue each year, while the other lost out on ticket sales to groups who copied their name. The regulation of speech applied equally to both, but one had the resources to exploit loopholes and ignore lost revenue, while the other did not. In Matthew 5:45, God “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” but we can’t forget that those who aren’t marginalized find it far easier to buy an umbrella. Restricting rights has unintended (and intended) consequences on the oppressed.

Some will certainly have a different perspective on the issue of First Amendment rights, one that they’ve reached through the lens of their own experience. I look forward to hearing those. In closing, I offer a window into my own beliefs.

I grew up in the St. Benedict Parish (now Christ Our Light) of Cambridge, OH, son of two Catholic parents. It was quite a shock, then, to discover in my late teens that I was gay. Many who have found themselves in that position have left the Church, and speak out against it today. It’s a valid and often life-preserving decision. But for me, I could not bring myself to leave the Church because I still found truth in its social justice mission, and still retained my belief in the Sacraments. Perhaps most importantly, I couldn’t abandon other kids like me to a Church where the only voices they heard were the condemnation I would leave behind.

Since then, I’ve done my best to work for change without blowing up the institution. I don’t believe people will always do the right thing, but they deserve at least the opportunity to do so. I saw the Curch change once, and I believe I’ll see it change again — on tone, on employee nondiscrimination, and one day, on the question of marriage. I can’t separate my experience with the Catholic Church from the choices I made in my organizing work later in college, or from my aversion to restrictions on the First Amendment. As I head off campus, I look at America in much the same way. It’s caused and continues to cause great harm to populations, but its salvation will come from people within holding it to the principles it professes.