The framers of our U.S. Constitution knew well how powerful words capture the hearts and minds of people. They knew from personal experience that information had to be free and accessible to all for any government to exist, as Abraham Lincoln later described it, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We are indeed blessed today by their wisdom in providing constitutional protection for freedom of speech within the First Amendment.
Certainly, there are limitations to the protection of free speech. For example, yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater when no fire exists is not protected due to the risk of undue harm. False advertising is another example of unprotected speech. For the most part, however, we enjoy the freedom to speak our mind in the United States, unlike many other parts of the world.
This freedom is good in that it encourages the free exchange of information and ideas valuable for public benefit. Of course, that does not mean everything said or written is valuable, worthwhile, or even truthful. Freedom of speech places a heavy responsibility on us as hearers or consumers of information. We must be able to intelligently and effectively evaluate what we hear before we decide what to do about it, if anything. This is particularly difficult in our world of 24/7 news cycles and 20-second sound bites, where the total amount of known information is doubling every one to two years. How do we separate the valuable information from all the background noise?
This is where it gets tricky on a personal level. We can decide to simply turn it off and only receive information we specifically request, which many choose to do in this age of information overload. The danger in this approach is that we become less aware, less informed and less capable of negotiating complex issues within our rapidly changing environment. The more difficult, but ultimately more beneficial option, is to intelligently filter and evaluate all information that we can reasonably digest.
Nowhere is this more evident than on a university campus, a clearinghouse of ideas and diverse opinions. Yes, that sometimes means that nuggets of truth are interspersed with a lot of nonsense. For that reason, think of the university as a proving ground for ideas, where the best ones survive the scrutiny of critical public review. In that sense, we need to allow protected speech in order to sift out the very best ideas. It is a process never fully completed, an ongoing experiment in progress.
Yes, words are powerful, and ideas can be transformative. Thanks to our forefathers, we have the freedom to publicly speak and debate freely. If you want to learn more about our constitutional right of free speech, check out http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/. Also, many students recently have asked me and other administrators about how we decide who can use our campus facilities. Our facilities use policy answers that question (Policy No. 121, Access to and Use of Campus Property and Facilities).