Responsibility of Free Speech

By Maggie Caputi

The First Amendment is arguably the most defining piece of the United States’ Constitution; “defining” in the sense that it effectively provides a foundation for the American ideal of liberty, which is central to our country’s political identity. The First Amendment affords us the opportunity to speak freely and voice our opinions without punishment. It empowers us to take ownership of those opinions and express ourselves. People have fought and died to defend and preserve this right but we often take this right for granted, exercising it carelessly, even unsafely. Its absoluteness, while necessary, may also be its crux; the hurtful, the defamatory and the untrue are not out of bounds. People often equate their right to speak freely as the right to offend others. This isn’t illegal, but such an interpretation ignores social responsibility. Although we have the right to speak freely, it’s not always right to do so.

We need to interpret free speech as a responsibility in addition to a right. The initial intent behind the First Amendment was to ensure that citizens could safely express opinions about their government without fear of censorship or punishment. Our modern understanding of the free speech is almost entirely disconnected from its original purpose; we are using it as a justification for saying whatever we want and, in doing so, we ultimately compromise the integrity of the right.

Speaking freely and speaking responsibly are not mutually exclusive. In order to have engaging and meaningful discussions, we sometimes need to monitor our language for the sake of respect, but this doesn’t mean we need to censor our opinions altogether.  Additionally, while it’s important to monitor what we say and how we say it, it’s just as important that we make a conscious effort to understand what we hear and how we hear it. At the beginning of the year, the Campus published an editorial titled, “The Coddling of the Middlebury Mind,” in an effort to encourage members of the Middlebury community to “learn to disagree without shutting down, refusing to listen and labeling.” If speaking freely is the First Amendment, listening openly should be Amendment 1.5. When others speak, we need to listen attentively, even if we don’t agree. By plugging our ears, we don’t get rid of the things that make us uncomfortable – we avoid them.

While we have the right to free speech, we also have an obligation to consider our audience. When we contribute to conversations – whether public or private – we need to respect those with whom we engage. However, conversations aren’t conversations if nobody’s listening. When people speak, it’s because they have something to express, and they want others to hear it. We should challenge ourselves to listen to those voices and try to understand and learn from them, just as we would hope that others would listen to us when we voice our own thoughts.

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