It is generally an ill omen for the success of any sort of public event when the event’s location needs to be changed at the exact time it’s slated to begin. This was the case on one fine morning when the intrepid members of YAL at the University of Pittsburgh decided that their planned location for their latest activism project, a patio outside of the University’s largest dorm complex, was simply unusable due to frigid weather.
Despite bone-chilling winds on top of already cold temperatures, they were able to find a safe haven for their latest activism project; a free speech ball in the enclosed elevated walkway running above Forbes Avenue. From this comparatively warm new location the YAL members were able to collect signatures, distribute club materials, and of course witness the fascinating phenomenon that occurs when someone is told to write down a statement, and then told that any and all statements are fair game.
Free speech is an inherently politicized idea, and though there was no shortage of political sloganeering on the massive inflatable beach ball, it always seems as though the totally apolitical statements written by one of the dozens of anonymous passers-by stick out the most. Highlights in this category included such gems as: “The Warriors blew a 3 – 1 lead in the NBA finals,” “Legalize Memes,” the entire first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and, “Be the reason someone smiles today.”
In times such as these, where many view our constitutionally-protected right to free speech as a necessary casualty in the war against bigotry and discrimination, it is worth remembering two key points: First, laws against any type of speech have never proven an effective deterrent to those types of speech. Try as we might, we simply cannot legislate our way to total social harmony. Second, any theoretical law passed to limit “hate speech” or “discriminatory speech” could quickly be abused by any branch of government to silence its critics and opposition forces, though the consequences of an overly powerful branch of the federal government hardly needs an explanation to anyone who’s followed US politics for the past two months.
The quotes included above were not put there simply for the amusement of the reader, they were included to show that like many of the rights affirmed by our constitution, the modern definition of free speech issues is far narrower than one may imagine. Free speech does not just mean the freedom to insult, belittle, and discriminate against, but also the freedom to support, affirm, and include. It’s the freedom to express any opinion one might have. If one truly wants to ally his or herself with the oppressed, they should look to use all their own capacity for speech in support of these marginalized groups rather than looking for some legal “magic bullet” to silence those with reprehensible opinions.