Free Speech with Community Values

Professor John Ambacher, Ann McDonald, chief of staff and general counsel, and Cassidy Flynn, senior and president of the College Republicans hosted a forum on “Free Speech and Community Values” in the Center for Inclusive Excellence on Wednesday, April 25.

Four students attended the event, as well as one FSU community member.

Millie González, interim chief officer of diversity, inclusion & community engagement, introduced the three speakers and set the agenda for the discussion. What constitutes free speech, what is its impact on society, particularly in relation to social media, and what can be defined as “un-free speech” were the main issues the forum wished to address, according to González.

Ambacher said, “The good news is our legal system provides greater protections for free speech than any other country in the world … the bad news is our legal system provides greater protections for free speech than any other country in the world.”

Free speech is the lifeblood of American democracy; however, there are times when our freedom of speech is restricted, according to Ambacher. Local authorities have the ability to impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on marches and protests, but they also have the ability to define what “reasonable” means.

“They know they can’t get you for the content of your speech, so they get you by imposing unreasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of the protest,” Ambacher said.

On campus, it is important to note that one doesn’t shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door. Rather, a university is supposed to be a place where differing ideas can flourish side-by-side, according to McDonald.

“There are always going to be consequences for speech, speech has an impact. With this right comes responsibility,” McDonald said.

Generally, speech in the United States is protected unless it falls into one of three categories – defamation, obscenity, and incitement speech.

Defamation includes libel and slander, the written and vocal ridiculing or defamation of another person’s character by spreading false statements. This type of speech is difficult for public officials to fight against, as they must prove not only that the statements were false, but also that they were presented with reckless disregard to the truth, according to Ambacher.

Obscenity includes language that appeals to a prurient interest in sex without any redeeming social, political, scientific or literary value. One way communities police obscene language is by zoning them, for example, confining an adult bookstore to a particular part of town, Ambacher explained.

Incitement speech includes any words that produce a clear and present danger of imminent lawless activity.

According to Flynn, another issue that comes with the freedom of speech is its impact on online discourse, particularly in relation to social media. One issue is that for some young people, posting controversial opinions online has become more dangerous.

“Social media is a place where a lot of people feel they can say whatever they want. You need to be careful what you post on social media. It can negatively affect your opportunities at school and in careers,” Flynn said.

However, she went on to stress the importance of respecting other people’s opinions on the internet.

“You want to be able to say your political opinion or any opinion, as long as it isn’t harmful, without being afraid,” Flynn said.

McDonald also added that this shouting down of controversial opinions doesn’t only occur online, but also on college campuses, where controversial speakers have been threatened out of giving speeches or otherwise shouted down while giving their speech.

McDonald said, “An effective alternative to combatting these controversial speakers and expressing your discontent with them is for students simply to turn their backs. It sends a powerful message ignoring a speaker like that instead of acknowledging them by shouting them down,” Donald said.