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Free speech must be protected in all situations

By Joe Lanoie

Section: Opinions

January 23, 2015

My high school once performed a comedic retelling of “The Princess and the Pea,” a story about a girl, who, to prove she is a true princess, must feel a pea beneath 20 mattresses. The play’s queen creates the test to examine the girl’s “sensitivity.” During this past winter break, with stories of tweets, magazines and movies being suppressed, the song came to mind. “Common people don’t know what exquisite agony is suffered by gentle people like me,” the queen laments. This song describes many who believe that speech is sacrosanct only when it supports their beliefs or does not offend anyone. To quote talk show radio host Dennis Prager, that “is so deep, that I can only ascribe it to higher education.” Freedom of speech, whether it be tweet, film or satire, must be protected from both those who would infringe upon it as well as from the double standards of those who claim to endorse it.

The double standard of sensitivity revealed itself recently on campus. Khadijah Lynch tweeted some things that were inflammatory. She has every right to say these things, just as she does to believe them. Daniel Mael, upon seeing these tweets, had every right to refute her claims. For full disclosure, Mael is a friend of mine. Even if I hated him, I would have praised the mindset behind his actions. He was disturbed by her tweets and wanted to show others what she thought. The death threats both have received are wrong because they go against decent humanity; even a free speech proponent does not wish threats to be protected. Yet some on campus showed their double standards.

They tolerated Lynch’s speech and forgave her once she resigned as UDR. When Mael was concerned, they wanted disciplinary proceedings and even expulsion for the actions of others. Why does calling out a person for their public statements get more societal shame than tweeting an unpopular opinion? They both have the right to do so, as my readers have the right to criticize me. My readers do not have the right to threaten my editors for publishing my content. They can write an opinion article counter to published opinions.

Recently, the double standard revealed itself again in The Justice, when the co-president of the campus chapter of Amnesty International was asked her view on the Charlie Hebdo attack. In response she stood up for the magazine’s free speech, but chided them for publishing their cartoons, saying “people of the world should … not attack religions, races and sexualities.” People should be able to question the validity of all religions. Political theorist Thomas Paine wrote an entire book questioning organized religion, which resulted in his funeral being attended by six people. Free speech has consequences, but censorship should not be one of them.

Secondly, Charlie Hebdo insulted Moses and Jesus as well; would this chiding response arise if it were a different religion? Some feminists have attacked archbishops to speak out for women’s rights. Considering that the Amnesty International Facebook page for Brandeis has numerous photos with the hashtag “#mybodymyrights,” the group would praise the mentality, despite them “attacking religions.”

Thirdly, Charlie Hebdo has every right to criticize religion under free speech. Who is one of the best fighters for free speech worldwide? Amnesty International. From their official website, “Human rights defenders … depend on, and fuel, freedom of expression.” So the campus group has free speech, but the magazine doesn’t? The double standards of Brandeisian speech strike again. If a comment is made publicly, countering it should be allowed.

Violent threats must be condemned. They are the limitations of free speech most decent people endorse. But they don’t act that way. The fear of minority rule suppresses the majority’s choices. Self-censorship happens to prevent condemnation under the sophistry of not being offended. It’s not feasible to expect to live without being offended. The value of being offended only goes to test our comfort zones, not in making them no-man’s-land of speech. I am a devout Catholic. I believe that the Virgin Mary was sinless all her life from her conception. When I see Chris Ofili’s “painting” “The Holy Virgin Mary,” with its elephant dung and flying female sex organs, I want to question his choices. Shouldn’t the artist act responsibly, and not attack religion? Then I sigh and do something radical: ignore its existence. The artist has every right to paint a holy figure in animal feces, and I have every right to stay away from it. Charlie Hebdo also had magazine cartoons blaspheming Jesus Christ and the Trinity. Instead of being offended when seeing the images, I turned off my computer.

The point of offensiveness is to question taboos and spur discussion. If someone is offended that we use fossil fuels on campus, they do not sue the campus to stop it. They hold a vote and discussion. If someone does not like the fact the school’s president had not spoken out about an issue for over three years, they protest. If meal plans cause pain, they discuss it with management. They don’t threaten violence. If a film mocks a dictator, hacking it should not be tolerated. Calling out a person for discussing another’s opinions is not intolerant; punishing them is. Everyone has the right to discuss, but the motive must be considered. Motives of hatred are not allowed, but motives spurred by freedom and education must be. Fight through discussion to see who is right, but be nice. Don’t shut down an opponent just because you do not want to hear what they have to say.

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