Free Speech: It’s Not Always Pretty

January 26, 2007
Living in a society that values the right to freedom of speech means sometimes having to see and hear things that are profoundly offensive. Understandably, it is in the face of this type of speech that the cries for censorship are often the loudest—which for free speech activists means it’s time to put aside our own personal revulsion and kick into high gear. For example, various news outlets are reporting that students at Tarleton State University in Texas held a party on Martin Luther King Jr. Day “that mocked black stereotypes by featuring fried chicken, malt liquor and faux gang apparel.” Not surprisingly, the party—pictures of which are circulating online—has sparked outrage at the university, and university authorities are reportedly commencing an investigation.
This is the time when defenders of liberty need to stand on principle. Most people with common decency will find the pictures from the Tarleton State party quite repugnant—I know I did. But repugnant does not mean punishable. The First Amendment—which is binding on a public university like Tarleton State—protects a great deal of speech that many people would find deeply offensive. As the U.S. Supreme Court eloquently stated in Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 24-25 (1971): 
To many, the immediate consequence of [freedom of speech] may often appear to be only verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance. These are, however, within established limits, in truth necessary side effects of the broader enduring values which the process of open debate permits us to achieve. That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense not a sign of weakness but of strength. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in what otherwise might seem a trifling and annoying instance of individual distasteful abuse of a privilege, these fundamental societal values are truly implicated. (Emphasis added.) 
So what does this mean for the Tarleton State revelers? It means they should be reviled and ridiculed for their behavior, but not censored. The university should cease its investigation into what was unquestionably constitutionally protected speech, and instead direct its energies toward providing people a forum with which to counter the partygoers’ offensive speech not with punishment but rather with the proper remedy: more speech.