Can Free Speech Really Be Free?

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free speech

In the midst of a YouTube rabbit-hole whereby I inadvertently spent hours watching old clips of Megyn Kelly Today, I discovered something troubling worth exploring– as someone who is an ardent proponent and defender of the First Amendment, I really do not know what free speech means. I was never a particularly big fan of Megyn Kelly, though, within the context of her dismissal from the today show in late 2018, I was struggling to adequately evaluate both the magnitude of the platform she had been given and the consequences of her subsequent dismissal. The rapidly evolving news-cycle of today has all but eliminated Megyn Kelly from the free speech zeitgeist in 2019, but both her comments on appropriation and the public response is nonetheless worth considering among conservatives and young adults within whose hands the future of free speech lies.

Ted Lieu (D-CA) would “love to be able to regulate the content of speech,” and though he is mindful of how blatantly illegal that would be, he still echoes a sentiment that has only grown stronger and more salient in recent years, a sentiment that I am increasingly ill-equipped to oppose. My own perspective is complicated and rife with inconsistencies, though I thought it nonetheless worth exploring. To start, a few core tenets undergird most every perspective I have: heated rhetoric, I believe, is not an antecedent to partisanship, and it does not necessarily follow that the elimination of harmful rhetoric would also eliminate harmful ideals and prejudices. A racist who has been removed from Twitter is still and will still be a racist.

The climate, though, is eroding, and insidious ideals feel louder than they have been in the contemporary past, as are the ideals that endeavor to restrict the free expression of all thoughts, both good and bad. Free speech itself is in an enormously precarious position, and while it is not a constitutional crisis necessarily, Megyn Kelly, Ted Lieu, and their respective circumstances are emblematic of the inequitable power afforded to the heckler’s veto and the move away from the government toward the public as the real threat. Ted Lieu, with regard to restricting speech, can do so without legislation. A tweet, remark, or passing thought is enough to mobilize his constituents, elevate their voices, and drown out the opposition. Similarly, Megyn Kelly’s dismissal was driven less by principle and more by the deafening public cries for said dismissal. James Gunn was fired and Kevin Hart was relieved of his Oscar hosting gig, and as frustrated as those dismissals make me, I cannot reconcile my frustration with the simple fact that public outrage is itself free speech, and any limits on said outrage is a limit on speech and free expression writ large.

Moreover, it is difficult for me to feel comfortable in my defense of public figures whose remarks cross the line. When Megyn Kelly (ludicrously) conveys incredulity toward the harm of blackface, I simultaneously think she is an idiot but also someone whose ideas– like all ideas– deserve protection. Some ideas, though, are noxious and uncomfortable; they are racist, sexist, homophobic, and all-around nasty. The real threat to free speech is not being waged over gingerbread men and innocuous phrases such as “as you know” in university classrooms, but rather over the legitimately ugly ideas and thoughts. Those aforementioned battles are easy to win, yet a large swath of the right-leaning base dedicate an enormous amount of energy to oppose and ridicule asinine restrictions while remaining silent on the murky, tricky, and inherently uncomfortable debates. When Megyn Kelly says that blackface should be okay, I cannot as a white man evaluate the harm of that statement, and I am no better equipped to evaluate the harm of racially derogative terms and epithets linked to cultures, ethnicities, and identities that I will never know– how can I determine whether such statements are acceptable?

At this juncture, I cannot, though it is an argument worth rehearsing. Yes, eliminating hateful rhetoric does not eliminate hateful ideals, save for those happy few who can then pretend that consequently no one harbors prejudice and misguided mantras, but the role of hateful rhetoric is unclear to me. There is no conclusion or answer here. I do not know how angry to feel toward Ted Lieu, and I do not know whether Megyn Kelly should have kept her job. I do know, though, that the longer conservatives spend time waging fake battles over Christmas songs and gendered-greetings, the uglier this debate is going to get, and the uglier it gets, the harder it will be to win.

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