Bach: Fire in a Crowded Theater

by Jinsung Bach | 7/28/16 6:00pm

Even the most cynical of persons will agree that the foundation of any free republic rests entirely upon the freedom of speech. Only with the provision of such freedom can a nation hope to prosper, for it is the ensuing clash of ideas and thoughts from which innovation is born. The same ingenuity that has defined America’s finest moments from independence to the Apollo 11 moon landing did not spring from a vacuum, but from the free movement of ideas and beliefs. We owe most everything that we are as a nation – social, scientific, and everything in between – to our commitment to our First Amendment.

It has nonetheless been established that such a provision does not protect every form of speech. It provides no such protection for libel, for instance, nor for theft of another’s intellectual property. It does not protect speech meant to provoke a violent reaction, nor threats of such violence against others. It is a commonly heard maxim that the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. In the spirit of such a sentiment, even our most cherished right to freedom of speech is understood as having its limits.

Such a dynamic presents to us a unique dilemma. On the one hand, we must uphold our right to express ourselves freely if we are to truly call ourselves a democracy. On the other, we cannot allow one person’s freedom of speech to trespass on another’s civil liberties. Untenable as it would be to allow anyone to say anything in the name of liberty, it is just as untenable to control such speech purely in the name of security. A balance must therefore be attained between the two. But where, as a nation that values both of these ideas, do we draw the red line?

As of late, the line has been drawn at a point where it places an excessive emphasis upon security over liberty. It has become too easy for unpopular opinions to be dismissed on the grounds that they violate the safety of others. Even when such threats to safety are imagined and have little basis in fact, unpopular opinions may face a ruthless censorship at the hands of an aggrieved opposition. One only needs to say that they feel “triggered” or threatened to silence an opinion they disagree with; we have already seen this happen time and again in academia, where opinions have been unfairly shunned by those who found them distasteful.

The problem with such claims is that they often mistake healthy contention for an attack against personal safety. Because their beliefs are being directly questioned, they no longer feel secure in those beliefs and so they feel frightened. Young people associate their fright with a genuine sense of physical danger, and so they are compelled to label it as such even when there is clearly no threat to their well-being. Unfortunately, this matters little to the institutions that encourage them to act upon such feelings, shafting any intellectual thought to the side. Such is a cowardly means of building a society, because it teaches its pupils that comfort trumps critical thinking.

What too many do not realize is that such contention is not only a very normal part of free speech, but also the very reason why it exists in the first place. Free speech exists so that we can feel challenged and questioned at every turn, our staunchest beliefs shaken to their core as we are forced to take in new perspectives. It broadens our horizons and allows us to think upon differing opinions and why such differences exist. From such reflections, we can elucidate that which is the best path to follow.

Free speech was never meant to feel comfortable, lest we become too complacent in our own self-righteousness. Free speech can often feel like a battleground, and it should; the consequent debate keeps the mind forever thinking about what it believes in. There is no such excuse for language that invites violence, of course, but nonetheless the threshold is much higher than so many people would think. We must understand that simply feeling threatened by new ideas is not grounds for censorship.

This is the heart of intellectualism. It arises from the knowledge that in understanding many differing ideas and perspectives, one can learn a great deal and weigh the best motion forward. Even amidst the adversity that the sharply critical voices around us can bring, such openness brings with it the compassion to understand and the power to be better. It all begins with the acknowledgement that, in spite of our misgivings, liberty and security are often one and the same.