“I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it” is a superficial creed.
Speech has limitations. We cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And we have laws that provide legal remedy for speech that is slanderous (oral) or libelous (written).
But in this age of off-the-cuff shoot-first, aim later social media communication, there is another constraint that is not codified in law, but to which we must pay attention.
We may have “freedom of speech,” but we do not have freedom from consequences. For example, a teenager may decide to tell parents “%#*&^”! But if the teenager is over 18, the parents can set his or her suitcase on the front steps and wave goodbye!
You must consider your target audience. As a teacher it is my responsibility to communicate effectively with my students. It is not enough for me to know what I mean. I must select words so that my students, my audience, will accurately understand what I mean. Communication is the paradigm—the central core—of teaching. As a supervisor, I will flunk a student teacher who cannot refine their message for effective and accurate communication with various students.
When a speaker broadcasts their message openly on social media, the task becomes even more complex. But the responsibility still resides with the speaker. Literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish wrote a book titled: “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech...and It’s a Good Thing Too.” He explains how we must be constrained in what we say. And as his book title states, “it is a good thing, too.” It is not just the laws that keep us civil, but the consequences of our speech.
Simply, within the constraints of libel, slander, immediate endangerment, inciting to riot, and divulging how to build a nuclear bomb, we can have freedom of speech. But we are not free from its consequences.
I cannot follow some university colleagues into wholesale defense of the recent controversial tweet because I believe that the message was not worthy of defense. It was more of an emotional outburst than a communication of valuable substance. All “heat.” No “light.” And no “dignity.”
It deserved to be ignored. Instead, the Board of Regents adopted bad policy. And in this national and state political climate, it might even threaten sabbaticals and tenure.
With rights come responsibilities. My speech and debate teacher, Otis Aggertt, explained it clearly when he wrote “A Hippocratic Oath for Speakers.”
“Inasmuch as membership in society requires concern for ethics, the instrument of public speaking has incalculable power over the minds and hearts of humans, and engaging in public speaking demands corresponding concern for ethical standards,
I, therefore, affirm that as a public speaker I will so evaluate the techniques of my art by the measure of my purposes and receptivity of my audience as to effect practical limitations on what I say;
I will remember at all times the inherent dignity of humans for that is more important than any other concern; and
I will strive when speaking publicly to be adequately informed for I have no right to disseminate ignorance, to think straight for I have no right to promote confusion, to be fully honest both in letter and spirit, and to be socially responsible as I bear in mind the welfare of those who may be affected by my speaking.”
But neither can I condone the over-the-top reaction of the Kansas Board of Regents, who have embraced an ill-advised set of guidelines that stifles responsible criticism in the name of collegiality. There are many other Board policies in bad need of critical input and discussion.
At the university level, both faculty and students should have learned that no issue is black-and-white—that no “principles” are absolute. A polarized cat fight between faculty and regents can overshadow the other serious problems that the BOR needs to address.
One mission of universities should be to develop young ladies and gentlemen. Hopefully the faculty and the Board can address this issue as ladies and gentlemen as well. This issue is not black-and-white.