The Cost of Free Speech

When I was a kid, I learned the rhyme: sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. While that saying reminds you to draw on your inner strength and believe in yourself no matter what anyone says about you, the idea that words will never hurt is pure fantasy. Sometimes insulting words cause a lot of damage to a person’s self-esteem, especially if repeated often enough. Sometimes a bad choice of words damages the reputation of the speaker and anyone connected to them. Speech may be free but it comes with a price.

Recently, a doctor posted racist comments on Facebook about Michelle Obama. After insulting the First Lady, the anesthesiologist claimed that she’s not a racist, nevertheless, her disgusting comments went viral. The media contacted her employer, Denver Health, for comments. The hospital condemned her private remarks while acknowledging that she has the right to free speech. Later, the doctor voluntarily resigned after meeting with the hospital. With a few careless words, she lost a job that paid over $300,000 a year.

The Denver Post published an editorial about this situation, The High Cost of Free Speech, suggesting that perhaps we go too far in punishing people who say unacceptable things. Social media has a “chilling effect” on free speech because people are publicly shamed when they write or share something bad. Surely exercising free speech shouldn’t cost a person their livelihood?

The Post said that our right to free speech comes with a cost: people will say or do things that you find offensive, like making disgusting comments or burning the flag. The paper cautioned us to respond more calmly when we hear something offensive so that the right to free speech is not eroded.

I can understand the Post’s point of view. Public comments on Facebook can be very nasty. I have seen Facebook comments from people who condemn complete strangers – even wishing them physical harm. People make judgments about others without all of the facts (or even any facts). There is no due process, no benefit of the doubt, no room for second chances. There has also been too much public backlash, in my opinion, against people who protest in a way that others don’t approve, for example, kneeling during the national anthem or skipping school to protest the election. This public backlash does have a chilling effect on free speech.

I can also see why the hospital encouraged the doctor to resign after her comments were publicized. The hospital serves minorities. I saw comments on social media questioning whether minorities get the same level of care and respect from this doctor as white patients.

This is a cautionary tale for all of us. Sometimes we impulsively say something we shouldn’t and later regret it. On social media especially, it is so easy to share a post that many people probably don’t stop to think about the lasting effect. I have seen a few of my own friends share racists posts and I think less of them for it. I have also noticed that I am seeing far more posts from strangers than ever before – friends of my friends. If you don’t want your posts to be viewed by people you don’t know, you need to check your privacy settings. And if you wouldn’t want someone to take a snapshot of your comments or posts and share them publicly, then maybe you shouldn’t say it.

I am not in favor of public shaming but I do think there should be social repercussions for hateful speech. There should be backlash. We should not condone it. We should make it clear that racism, sexism, bullying and just plain nastiness are not socially acceptable, regardless of how much status and power the speaker has.

This year, millions of people rejected the idea that words matter. Political correctness, even common decency, was cast aside and replaced with careless insults, bullying, and lies. People were even encouraged to act violently against those who protested against the speaker. But just because a celebrity got away with using free speech to degrade and demean other people does not make it morally right or socially acceptable. The damage caused by his careless words is being spread across the country – in schools and businesses and homes.

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.”
William Faulkner

Free speech is a precious right. A wise person uses it carefully.

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