(Melissa Kaplan is a junior with a double major in Media and Communication and Political Science at Muhlenberg College. She is a 2008 FIRE Summer Intern.)
I have a friend who always says, "You’re entitled to your opinion, however wrong it may be." I jokingly nudge him and keep insisting that I’m right; it’s easy to insist because just like everyone else, I do indeed believe I am right.
When I first heard about the Kutztown University College Republicans’ "affirmative action bake sale" I was disgusted, appalled, and outraged. I thought the action of the College Republicans was abominable, and that the sale should be cancelled immediately. I was convinced I was right—and anyone who supported the bake sale was wrong. When I was asked why I felt that way I spewed off the reasons: I was liberal, I was in favor of affirmative action, and I thought the sale was discriminatory and outright offensive. Why should I receive a cookie for 50 cents when my male counterpart has to pay a dollar?
So I must admit that it made me slightly apprehensive to be interning for an organization that defends groups who seem so blatantly offensive and discriminatory.
In fact, when I returned home from work the day after I first read about the indecent on FIRE’s website, I was so bothered and so determined that this horrid bake sale shouldn’t be held, that I actually couldn’t relax. Despite the fact that I had run three miles earlier that night, I stayed awake for hours, searching the Internet for anything I could find to support my initial stance that the bake sale should be shut down—but found nothing. I asked friends, family, and everyone I could think of to give their view on the case, and though most people agreed the bake sale was wrong and offensive, no one could explain why it should be shut down.
After so much internal struggle and searching for answers—and despite my personal feelings about the bake sale—I finally understood why FIRE supported the Republicans’ right to run the sale. Legally, there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. There is no constitutional right protecting people from being offended, but the amendment our forefathers felt important enough to be listed first is that which protects the freedom of expression. By shutting down the bake sale, the college prevented those who wanted to participate from expressing their political view: that affirmative action is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Michael Meyers, President and Executive Director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, drove this point home for me when he commented on the bake sale saying, "So let me get this right, since I’m a black male, my cupcake is half price? Great! Tell them I want a chocolate cupcake with yellow frosting. Two, for that matter!" This response helped me understand that not only was my rationale against the sale unfounded constitutionally, but I had wrongly assumed that all minority individuals would be offended by the sale.
These realizations have helped me have an ideological 180. I still disagree with the bake sale’s message. However, I now understand that regardless of my being offended by another’s message or ideas, they deserve the same constitutional protection as the causes I do agree with. The few short weeks I have interned here have already helped me to mature and learn, and I now understand that the First Amendment was intended to protect the unpopular, dissenting, and, yes, even offensive from official censorship.
It’s easy to defend free speech when the content is non-controversial or when you agree with the views being expressed. But to truly defend free speech, and understand that all people are have the right to their views—even when you think their message is absurd, wrong, and insulting—is a much more challenging job. This struggle is fought by the people who cherish the ideals of democracy, including the right to free speech regardless of viewpoint, and therefore strive to uphold the First Amendment in its true form. I have found these people at FIRE, and have the honor of learning these lessons and upholding that legacy for the remainder of my summer as an intern.