Avoiding ostrich behavior: Free speech as a nonpartisan ideal

July 16, 2018

I’ve had ostriches on the mind lately. The 7-foot, 200-pound bird is a feathered force of nature. And, I’ve been thinking, though I do find ostriches endearing, humans would not do well to emulate their purported behavior, mythical as it may be. We go nowhere fast if we bury our heads in the ground. Mirroring this false stereotype of ostrich behavior will produce nothing but sandy ears and pernicious ignorance. The perpetuity of our ongoing American experiment in constitutional democracy is wholly reliant upon freedom of expression — engaging in the opposite of ostrich behavior.

I say this even as a decidedly political being, tenaciously holding some heated opinions. We are all political beings — I am not alone, steeping in the fires of controversial political or moral opinion. Yes, there are odious, reprehensible ideas and propositions floating around. I prefer to know about the morally disgusting rather than be blindsided by some ugly beast of an idea. Not all ideas should manifest tangibly, but do I claim to know which those are? Hardly. No one is omniscient, so we must humbly cede to the foundational premise that is “freedom of expression.”

These sentiments might be surprising coming from a self-identified liberal person. To many of my peers at Georgetown University, this seems absurd. When I told friends that I would be interning at a foundation heavily focused on free speech, several wondered aloud to me, “So, where does this alleged liberal fit in?” Well, I fit in the same way we all do in this diverse society — awkwardly, not neatly, and with my jagged edges ripping at the seams of other people’s ideas. This is what the culture and tradition of freedom of expression both requires and expects. I had to remind my friends, and myself: no political party can claim ownership of this ideal.

At Georgetown, there have been several incidents which reveal the nonpartisan nature of free expression. For instance, the conversations surrounding our student-run publications run troublingly across the political spectrum. The Hoya, a student newspaper, has a prolific opinion section which publishes op-eds from authors with a broad range of perspectives. I strongly disagreed with several of these op-eds last year. However, when I heard others who had also disagreed with these op-eds calling for The Hoya to be defunded, I was concerned. I have gradually noticed that at Georgetown, students are typically only interested in defending speech when it is aligned with their own views. I hope to clarify that if one hopes to enjoy the fruits of the First Amendment, that enjoyment cannot be so unilateral.

Other free expression controversies at Georgetown are related to H*yas For Choice, an unrecognized pro-choice student group. HFC has dealt with fettered speech and expression for about as long as they have existed. Whether it be campus police forcing HFC to move its table around to arbitrary locations to meet “policy” requirements, or club members’ condom envelopes being removed from their dorm doors, HFC has encountered plenty of restrictions on expression.

Indeed, there is a strong liberal case to be made for freedom of expression. The LGBTQ+ movement has relied heavily on the legal protections of the First Amendment in order to combat unjust laws and attitudes. Similarly, people of color and indigenous people have embraced the First Amendment and its underlying ideas in order to fight back against discrimination and racism. Still, many liberal student activists remain uninterested in free speech, because they believe some ideas are so morally repugnant that they do not deserve to exist — ironically, sometimes I hear free expression itself heralded as such an idea. The issue is that so many of us disagree on what speech is unacceptable. What some view as part of a civil rights movement, others might call a hate group —  we only need look at criticisms of Black Lives Matter to understand this.

As Michelle Goldberg writes, “[I]f the principle of free speech is curtailed, those with the least power are most likely to feel the chill,” adding that she “understand[s] that for a lot of young leftists, it doesn’t make sense to equate what they see as hate speech with the speech of the oppressed.” I struggle to reconcile this sometimes, too. It’s difficult to grapple with the fact that the voice of a white supremacist might be on an equal playing field with the voice of a survivor of the Holocaust, or of a descendant of an enslaved person. As harrowing as this might be, we must continually remind ourselves that an idea is not legitimized simply because a person expresses it — and if we hear ideas unworthy of legitimation, we can confute those views by using better and more free speech, rather than by emulating the ostrich.

Emma Vahey is a rising junior at Georgetown University and FIRE summer intern