Whiting column: Freedom of speech can be complex

Bryan Whiting
Personal Responsibility

Freedom of speech isn’t easy.

Everyone desires it. No one’s happy without it unless it’s negatively affecting us, making us feel uncomfortable or requiring responsibility.

It requires we not only allow and tolerate another’s words but be willing to fight for their right to safely espouse words with which we vehemently disagree, deem inappropriate or find disgusting. Freedom of speech doesn’t require our acknowledgement of validity, just the right to say it.

We must acknowledge the personal responsibility to utilize manners and role model appropriate behavior when exercising our right. Sensitivity and freedom of speech are not oxymorons. If our words don’t meet that criterion, they will stop listening and with it any chance to change their minds.

Demonstrating empathy is effective. When our first word is “no,” others don’t feel they’ve been heard and resulting acrimony assures nothing constructive occurs. The “yes, but” technique is useful: acknowledging their thoughts first, then presenting ours.

Our daughter asks to ride with friends to an out-of-town Taylor Swift concert necessitating her returning after midnight. Instead of immediately responding “not a chance,” if we respond “That would be a lot of fun; she’s a great singer. However, your curfew is 11 p.m. and the roads are too slick to drive that far at night.” She may not like the answer, but she may accept it better knowing we heard her. The technique can be useful when an employee asks for a work schedule change or any instance when a positive response isn’t possible.

Freedom of speech includes the written word, but not freedom of action. It doesn’t include infringing on others’ rights, such as spray-painting store windows or rec center walls. It doesn’t include physically demonstrating a contrary opinion by throwing rocks through a window or burning a police car. Doing such magnifies their admission that their words won’t stand on their own merits.

Freedom of speech does require us to toughen up our toleration level. No matter how passionately we disagree or how distasteful or disgusting we may feel their words are, they have the right to say them, and we must allow them to do so. We can’t nit-pick freedom. It’s an all or nothing concept.

It bears repeating that it’s helpful to remember most people who hurt or disparage us, don’t care about us. Consequently, let it go. Why allow someone who doesn’t care about us to control us?

We’re better off spending our energy advocating the validity of our words. Attempting to prohibit theirs, arguing or getting mad feeds their motivation; their energy. However, we don’t have an obligation to listen or read what they say. We can turn around, walk away, or disregard their paid ad, sign or column.

There are exceptions. After justifying youthful disagreement with my father with “freedom of speech” he responded. “You may have freedom of speech, but so do I and I win.” His response could have been worse.

We don’t have an obligation to facilitate their words. It’s up to them to acquire the means. They shouldn’t expect free space in a newspaper, radio or TV time any more than we should.

Freedom of speech doesn’t include violating our right to privacy. Technology can facilitate tracking our movement in our cars as well as private and commercial airplanes. Those doing so argue “it’s freedom of speech.” Sorry, that’s a stretch.

Freedom of appearance isn’t included when it’s essential. I reminded students to dress appropriately for an interview and an employer may require certain appearance on the job. They occasionally said, “That’s not fair. My appearance expresses my freedom of speech.” The world’s response is, “Fine, dress as you wish, but the employer may not to hire you. He hires those who fit in with his company culture and meets the needs of the position.”

Can employers control our freedom of speech? Depends. Views contrary to his expressed outside of work? Probably not. During work? Yes. Courts have reinforced the employer’s right to develop and maintain the company atmosphere he deems essential.

Contrary to what media may feel, courts have supported “confidentiality” related to running a business or the White House.

Freedom of speech in social media? Yes, but remember opening the app is voluntary. It’s hard, especially for our youth, but we can role play the will power to resist.

On a Sunday interview show, the guest made a unique argument that may have validity. The nature of social media emphasizes physical attractiveness, accomplishments and social acceptance. Consequently, it’s created a group of very lonely young men who don’t possess any of those characteristics. They aren’t getting attention, so they look to create it. A significant percentage of those committing mass shootings tend to occupy this group. At the least, it requires conversation with our children about social media and provide them with strategies to maximize its positives and minimize its negatives.

A tougher question is, “does our freedom of speech trump a person’s right to not be offended?” The short answer is, yes. It can be considered the price we pay for the freedom. We must realize if we want to think, improve or change we must be willing to risk being offensive to someone, especially those involved in the status quo. We must be willing to hear and consider uncomfortable words or questions if there is to be the possibility of progress.

The ramifications of freedom of speech can be difficult, but it exemplifies the extensive freedom we enjoy. It requires we demonstrate the personal responsibility to exercise that right with empathy, manners, good taste and an open mind.

Bryan Whiting feels most of our issues are best solved by personal responsibility and an understanding of non-partisan economics rather than government intervention. Comments and column suggestions to:

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