Free Speech, Made Equal: a lesson for Daily Bruin opinion writer

Posted on October 24, 2011 by


In the October 21st Opinion section of the Daily Bruin, In the Know: Irvine 11 Appeal,  writer Brittany Chu attempts to contest the charges of the infringement of free speech, for which the Irvine 11 were convicted. Despite her best efforts,  she succeeds only in providing a restricted redefinition of that selfsame right.

In February 2010, various UC Irvine students were escorted out of a lecture hall after disrupting a speech given by Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States. The students faced criminal charges that were filed by the university and were convicted of willfully disrupting a meeting, later punished with probation and community service hours. Chu argues that conviction for willful disruption is a precedent that diminishes an individual’s right to freedom of speech. I would adversely reason that unqualified right to free speech may be just as frightening as not being able to speak freely at all.

How does one define the right to free speech? Some may argue that it is the ability to express one’s beliefs or opinions when he or she deems necessary. However, are there times when it is necessary to have limitations against free speech? Should students like the Irvine 11 be allowed to interrupt an organized presentation to exercise their freedom of speech?

Chu argues that any limitations on free speech would send us down a slippery slope where, “the rights of future protesters [are] at a disadvantage, as courts might be able to expand the use of this law against them in the future.” She insinuates that the right to free speech is the unconditional ability to speak freely and any restriction would give an iron-fisted government more legitimacy in that “protesters [wouldn’t] be able to fight for what they believed in if they feared the constant threat of incarceration.”

Although Chu encourages her readers “to differentiate between free speech infringement and true, aggravating disruption,” I would like to make clear the distinction between a necessary restriction and the infringement of a right.

Freedom to express opinions, to publish one’s perspectives, or to assemble in order to debate are all freedoms that are promised to us, the citizens and people of the Unites States of America, as the foundation of our social contract. This contract is established upon the understanding that both the people and their elected government have promised to make sacrifices to ensure that both actors may reap the benefits of this contract. It’s a mutual relationship that requires responsibilities and sacrifices from both sides.  In our everyday lives these sacrifices come in the form of restrictions, rules, and bureaucracy – necessary processes that maintain the order of our society to ultimately ensure the rights of each citizen. In this light, there is a time and a place for free speech.

So how, then, is it possible to put limitations on free speech without infringing on the right to this freedom? The answer is that limitations make it possible for free speech to be at the disposal of every citizen.

This freedom wouldn’t be as valuable if it were not guaranteed to the entirety of the population. The restriction on the time and place of the free speech is essential to develop some type of progress in the arena of highly contested issues as well as small-scale disagreements in more intimate settings. This progress is the back and forth of different opinions in the hope that a conviction will be altered, a belief expanded, or a perspective revised. Subconsciously, sharing an opinion is the way in which we hope to change the minds of others. If this weren’t the case, there would be no reason to share an opinion at all.

Freedom to speak your mind, then, is only worthwhile when there is someone listening. In sharing an opinion, you expect that a parallel counterpart is going to listen, which is a demonstration of the social contract we have with one another. Exercising your freedom of speech, when it impedes on the freedom of another, exemplifies a breach in this social contract, as you are not listening. This principle illustrates the fault of the Irvine 11.

It is not the active use of their freedom of speech that was being tried in court, but rather the manner in which they employed this right. These students could have utilized effective alternatives to demonstrate their beliefs without diminishing the ambassador’s right to share his own opinions. The students were more than welcome to ask questions at the end of the presentation to voice their own opinions, after listening to the opinions of Mr. Oren. This method would have provided a more sensible forum to “freely speak” as the ambassador would have been expected to listen to the students’ opinions just as much as they were expected to listen to his.

I would hope that society will one day define freedom of speech, not just as the ability to share an opinion, but the expectation that once shared, the progenitor of that opinion is expected to listen to the free speech of another individual.

So when Chu asks whether “peaceful protests count as willful disruption,” I would respond by asking her what it means to protest peacefully. If she defines a peaceful protest as the action of individuals who share their opinions while taking away someone else’s right to the freedom of speech, then yes it is a disruption.

The limitation against disrupting another person’s display of freedom of speech is a necessary restriction to ensure that all individuals are endowed the right to the same freedom. These restrictions are the price we pay to live in an ordered society. Chu might argue that this price is too high, where the freedom to speak your mind should be unconditional. Amidst a society that is drowning in bureaucracy, there is a system that must be followed. Chu suggests that the system must be fought  “to avoid infringing on free speech rights as a whole.” Conversely, I’d suggest that the restrictions that come with the system are in place to serve the population, not to jeopardize it. A precious freedom, like the ability to speak one’s mind, is made invaluable by the expectation that when an opinion is voiced it must be listened to as well. So I ask you, where should we draw the line? Do we need to be unconditionally free? Or do the rules and norms that govern society pave the way for a type of freedom that we’ve come to accept to be free? Is this freedom enough?