Do Millennials support the First Amendment? In a recent Pew study, forty percent support the idea of government-led speech restrictions. Is the value of free speech in conflict with this generation’s otherwise admirable focus on inclusion and respect?
Free speech applies to the best of us, and the worst
“The First Amendment protects all kinds of speech, even when what’s being said is deplorable and disgusting,” says millennial Jacqueline Ledoux-O’Donnell, a 23-year-old liberal progressive Democrat who strongly supports free speech. But she says that radical liberals are trying to filter that freedom—even without realizing it.
O’Donnell cites Ann Coulter’s visit to the University of California Berkeley as an example. “People who identify politically as I do were burning books, making threats, and calling for the university to rescind Coulter’s invitation to speak because they didn’t like what she had to say.”
O’Donnell is not a fan of Coulter’s politics but she believes the conservative commentator should be able to speak her mind without fearing for her life and safety. “I feel the same way about other groups I think are sickening, such as the Westboro Baptist Church or even the KKK,” O’Donnell says. “Defending their right to speak does not mean I’m condoning the content of that speech or condoning their actions—it’s simply my belief that anyone can say whatever they want as long as it’s not a threat.”
Setting emotions aside
“Attacks by young Americans on free speech tend to stem from a millennial orthodoxy that believes debates over some issues—mainly dealing with race, gender, or sexual orientation—are beyond the pale,” says blogger Dan King, who is pro-gay, pro-choice, and pro-criminal justice reform.
King understands the emotional reaction of the would-be censors but says their attempts to stifle free speech embolden opponents. “The best way to combat ideas you find repulsive isn’t by pretending they don’t exist, it’s by confronting them, debating them, and attempting to persuade your ideological rivals in an unfettered marketplace of free ideas.”
The First Amendment protects citizens from being jailed for speaking out, but it does not protect against resulting social ramifications. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. “If you say something racist or homophobic on the internet and someone sends it to your employer, then yes, you should be able to be fired for that,” says O’Donnell.
Free speech, positive change
“Millennials who think that we should limit free speech to prevent ‘offensive speech’ haven’t given the matter much thought,” says Wells Lyons, founder of Resistance Enterprises. “Well-behaved people rarely make history.”
Lyons explains that social progress can be offensive to much of the population, which sees big changes as a threat to perceived values. “We need only to look at our nation’s social reformers, and to the challenges they faced, the legal battle they endured, and the names they were called to see how offensive their words were considered at the time.”
It was not too long ago in our nation’s history, for example, that women’s suffrage, interracial marriage, and homosexuality were outlawed. “Proposing changes to these laws offended millions,” says Lyons, “but if that speech itself was prohibited, change would have been even more difficult to enact. No idea is beyond criticism. That’s the promise of the First Amendment.”
Lyons says that we must continue talking about what’s happening in this country. “These conversations won’t always be easy, but they’re important. Letting your world know how you feel is the first step.”