Free Speech Is Still Important

You were probably told often in high school by your history teachers that college is the time when people are the most vulnerable with their political views. Whether a person is a far-left-wing or far-right-wing believer, they’re pretty much deciding on these beliefs themselves without influences from home.

One major topic of debate on college campuses is free speech and what exactly it entails. West Virginia University’s free speech rating on The Fire’s website is Yellow. This means that the university’s policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression. For example, a ban on posters “containing references to alcohol or drugs” violates the right to free speech because it restricts speech on the basis of content and viewpoint, but its scope is very limited.

Alternatively, a policy banning “verbal abuse” could be applied to prohibit a substantial amount of protected speech but isn’t clear because “abuse” might refer to unprotected speech, such as violence threats or harassment. In other words, the extent of the threat to free speech depends on how a policy is applied.

According to HigherEducationToday (HET), free speech is not absolute and never has been anywhere or at any time throughout history. The text of the First Amendment is quite simple and clear. It mentions five fundamental freedoms--speech, press, religion, peaceful assembly and the right to petition. For many Americans, freedom of speech is primary--the first freedom, without it the others wouldn’t exist.

Until roughly 100 years ago, the speech clause of the First Amendment stayed untouched--symbolically important yet seldom discussed. Today, after a century of impactful Supreme Court decisions regarding the issue, speech has greater protection in America than it ever did before.

Unfortunately, many people who claim to support freedom of expression regularly turn around to suppress the views of others. This is why free speech is still a relevant issue in 2019. Citizens should be working together to uplift one another and strengthen the unity in this country; instead, they belittle one another and talk down to those who they believe are inferior to them.

The New York Times released an article Aug. 15 talking about the United State’s decision to make warning labels more graphic on cigarettes. The FDA tried to get this passed in 2012 but it was turned down on free speech grounds. A panel of judges later upheld the decision, siding with tobacco companies that the agency couldn't force cigarettes to carry grisly images, including cadavers, diseased lungs and cancerous mouth sores.

The FDA said it would develop a new batch of labels, but when new ones didn't appear, eight health groups sued the agency in 2016 for the "unreasonable delay." Under a court order earlier this year, the FDA was required to propose new labels by August, with final versions by next March. This is just one of many instances that proves why free speech is such a tricky topic and solutions aren’t always black and white.

Having a nation that is so divided in its political beliefs makes solidifying a freedom more difficult. Instead of speaking over someone during a conversation that you disagree with, try understanding where they’re coming from and respecting their opinion. When you’re listening to someone voice their concerns, you should respect them for being brave enough to do so, regardless of their political stance. Kid President touches on this subject pretty well in this video.

If people could set aside their differences and see why everyone deserves to speak freely, we’ll be one step closer to strengthening our country’s unity.