The Cost of Free Speech

The whole world has been contemplating the horrific murders in Paris and some commentators have been discussing the idea of free speech. Much of the discussion in my estimation has focused on the political and legal aspects of this ideal. However, it might also be wise to consider the social dimensions “free speech.” The basic premise is that individuals have a legally protected right to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences through words. The implicit assumption is that words can stir debate and dialogue that can move communities and nations forward. This is a noble idea; however, the right to free speech also allows for the expression of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, and other forms hatred that can denigrate a people and damage relations between individuals, communities, religions, and nations. The freedom to express ideas is precious; however, it is not free. Free speech is quite expensive.

Over the past weekend, we have celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His speeches and papers are a treasure trove of inspirational and aspiration words and ideas that continue to fuel individuals to press for freedom and justice for all people in the United States and beyond. Selma, the motion picture, has raised the profile of Dr. King’s words this year. There is an opportunity to consider the price that he and countless others paid to speak truth to power. The cost was quite high as tears, blood, and lives were lost as an oppressed people stood together to make their case for full citizenship. In this case, free speech was priceless.

It should be noted that words and images have power, and they are not weighted equally. The grand juries in the Michael Brown and Eric Gardner cases demonstrate how the unequal weighting of words can lead to unjust decisions that prevent the responsible parties from facing a jury of their peers in a public setting. The Tamir Rice incident highlights how words from a news organization can obscure the tragedy that a single child with a toy gun was killed by armed men who took oaths to protect and serve the public. News organizations have the right to print information even it is not pertinent. However we must remember that free speech does not absolve news organizations from their responsibility to their consumers and their respective communities.

Free speech is a constitutional right that protects the expression of the thoughts above. I am protected from legal prosecution but I do have a social responsibility to govern my words. As a descendant of grown men and women who were called “boy” and “gal” all of their lives, I am well aware of the how words can deny humanity and destroy dreams. It is time that we think before we speak. Perhaps we should consider the following quote from a sermon preached this Sunday by my pastor, Reverend Reginald Buckley. He said, “just because you have the right to say it, does not mean that it is right to say.”