First, let me congratulate The Gatepost staff for their fair and sober reporting of the Towers Hall controversy in the Nov. 13 edition. As a retired member of the Framingham State University faculty who spent many semesters covering the complex issues involving the free speech clause of the First Amendment, I most humbly appreciate the conflicting currents and tensions that surround what should be and should not be protected by perhaps the most important protection in the Bill of Rights.
Over the past 200-plus years we, as a society, have engaged in bitter and contentious debates about what types of expression should be protected.
In the 20th century, the Supreme Court attempted, with some success, to carve out several exceptions to the protective mantle of the free speech clause.
One exception commonly referred to as the incitement exception states that speech that creates a clear and present danger of imminent lawless activity is not protected.
Of course what is “clear” and “present” and “imminent” may not be so easy to determine. A second exception deals with one’s reputation, which we all value.
False statements that hold one up to contempt and ridicule and undermine one’s reputation in the general community will not find refuge in the First Amendment.
And finally, there is that old culprit – obscenity.
The Supreme Court has basically thrown its hands up and passed on this sticky issue – one person’s obscenity is another person’s art. Anyway here is the court’s definition of obscenity – words or images that appeal to a prurient interest in sex and have no redeeming artistic, scientific, or literary value!
Until the latter part of the 20th century this in a nutshell embodied free speech jurisprudence.
And then came a new challenge – hate speech.
Speech that denigrates other human beings based on their religion, ethnicity, gender or race.
Now we have been told by the Supreme Court that we as citizens should not have thin skins – that speech that is offensive, demeaning, and even hurtful should be protected.
In my humble opinion, that is an easy conclusion for members of the Supreme Court to reach – a group of individuals who from their lofty position of power can easily brush off language that is hurtful or humiliating.
But for many members of our society who do not enjoy such lofty positions, hate speech can be a debilitating experience.
I like to refer to hate speech as the “rape of the soul.”
Unlike a broken leg that quickly heals, hate speech goes to the very center of our being and can last indefinitely.
So where does that leave me and this letter? My love of free expression leads me reluctantly to the conclusion that the First Amendment commands me to protect the speech I hate, not just the speech I like.
And yet this incident at FSU has again demonstrated to me that the best way to combat this type of demeaning and vile language is to speak out and confront it directly. To not let the representatives of ignorance win the day. To again demonstrate that our common humanity must compel each one of us to never remain silent in the face of such inhumanity.
The response of Framingham State University students assures me that their voices are being heard!
By John Ambacher
Department of Political Science