In the fall of 1997, students at Cornell University in New York stole 500 copies of the Cornell Review, a conservative campus newspaper, and burned them. The students were protesting the paper’s inclusion of an editorial cartoon suggesting that African Americans have a disproportionate number of abortions. This incident followed a similar event the previous spring, when 200 copies of the Review were destroyed in response to the publication of a parody piece on Ebonics (Black English). These events—and a string of similar instances that have taken place on college campuses nationwide in recent years— illustrate that the ideal of free speech, so simple in theory, is often controversial in practice.
America’s Founding Fathers believed so strongly in the right to free speech that they codified it in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states in part, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This right was considered so important it was the first of the ten freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights.
However, the right to free speech is not absolute. Throughout history, various restrictions have been imposed on this right by the Supreme Court. The classic examples of unprotected speech include fighting words and shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Fighting words are those used to deliberately provoke a violent response from a particular person. Shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater is outlawed due to its potential to endanger the public. These examples are often cited in attempts to determine whether controversial speech falls outside the scope of First Amendment protection.
Because the right to free speech is not absolute, a line must be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable forms of speech. Controversy arises when different parties disagree over where to draw that line. Indeed, a perpetual tension exists between free speech absolutists and those who favor restrictions on certain types of speech or expression, including hate speech, pornography, obscene art, sexually explicit library materials, and flag burning (which many people consider symbolic political speech). These and other forms of speech generate heated debate between those who demand completely unfettered expression and those who call for some degree of restriction on the words and images used by Americans.
The events at Cornell University reveal the complexity of the free speech de- bate. Many commentators harshly criticized the students who stole and destroyed copies of the Cornell Review simply because they found its contents distasteful. They also condemned the university’s administrators, who did not intervene to stop or denounce the thefts. Critics insist that the right to free speech takes precedence over the sensibilities of the people who are offended by that speech. Furthermore, many contend that the most effective way to combat hateful speech is to respond to it rather than suppress it. In this way, it is believed, faulty reasoning, fallacies, and simple-minded bigotry can be exposed for what they are. As stated by Nat Hentoff, a columnist for the Village Voice, “The way to answer bad and hateful speech is with more speech—not with a match.”
Others insist that certain forms of speech create harm by inflicting emotional pain or intentionally inciting others to violence. The speech that provoked the spring 1997 student protest at Cornell was considered more than merely offensive. The piece, written in Ebonics, parodied course descriptions from Cornell’s Africana Studies and Resources Center. The description of the hypothetical course “Racism in American Society” included the following:
Da white man be evil an he tryin to keep da brotherman down. We’s got Sharpton an Farakhan, so who da white man now, white boy? . . . We ain’t gots to axe da white man for nothin in dis class.
It is not difficult to understand why African-American students were outraged by this caricature of them. Nor is it hard to understand why using a match may have seemed a more appropriate response than simply the “more speech” recommended by Hentoff. As one Cornell student stated, “I’m tired of asking for my humanity.”
The debate over the Cornell Review protests is mirrored in numerous contexts throughout American culture. Pornography and hate speech on the Internet, library books describing homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, violent and sexually graphic music lyrics—these are just a few of the other free speech issues on which Americans are sharply divided. All of these topics are the focus of Free Speech: Current Controversies. Throughout this anthology, authors debate where to draw the line between permissible and impermissible speech and expression.
Did this raise a question for you?