Not a day goes by without hearing someone throwing around “free speech” as an excuse for verbal insults and personal attacks. But simple human decency means we should respect others and be considerate.
Last fall, at Santa Ana College, campus security, and top administrators ordered the Young Americans for Liberty club to deflate their “Free Speech Ball” for breaking the district’s Student Code of Conduct. The club was handing out markers to students, asking them to write whatever they wanted on the ball. Eventually, it was filled with comments varying from support for political candidates to cursing to symbols of hate.
The Student Code of Conduct was changed in October to allow vulgarity, verbal abuse, racial epithets, and hate speech. While it’s good that the code aligns with the First Amendment, I worry that this removes the notions of civility required of civil society. Sure, we can now draw swastikas or write “build the wall” on an inflatable beach ball, but the question is, should we?
I am an international student from Poland, and I have a different perspective on freedom of speech. I was born a year after my country regained its democracy, freeing itself from Soviet occupation. I learned early on that free speech wasn’t always free, and that thousands spent years in prison for criticizing the Soviets.
I remember a story about a Polish soldier who was cleaning his gun with other soldiers in Soviet-occupied Poland. On this day, he had had enough and spoke out about the atrocities committed upon his people, saying: “They killed our fathers with these guns.” As a result of speaking his mind, he was imprisoned for two years.
Hearing plenty of similar stories growing up, I always had a sense of appreciation for freedom of speech and democracy. But since coming to America more than four years ago, I’ve witnessed many incidents suggesting that some Americans use this cherished freedom for vulgar and selfish purposes.
A month ago, I overheard an argument between an elderly woman and a young man at a grocery store in Santa Ana. The lady said something offensive, the man replied and walked away, yelling, “It’s free speech, bitch!” as a goodbye. I couldn’t help but wonder why he had to quote freedom of speech. The First Amendment is more significant than being used as an excuse to insult someone.
I’m aware that the ability to insult is also part of free speech, yet it’s painful to see how many are using the First Amendment as an excuse to injure. Too many U.S. citizens have forgotten about personal responsibility, respect, and simple manners. It’s not too much to ask to live in a respectful environment where people can freely speak their minds without being mean to each other.
I’m reminded of a joke told by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan that shows why free speech matters. It mentioned the situation during communism when occupied Poland had food rationing, especially meat, and when Russian propaganda was at its peak.
“There were three dogs: an American dog, a Polish dog, and a Russian dog. They are all having a visit, and the American dog was telling them how things were in his country. He said, ‘You know, you bark, and after you bark long enough, then somebody comes along to give you some meat.’ And the Polish dog said, ‘What’s meat?’, and the Russian dog said, ‘What’s a bark?”
I implore you to respect your ability to bark in America. Don’ take it for granted. Make human decency accessible again and use your freedom of speech for what is really important, like speaking up about the government and holding those in power accountable.