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Land of the Free and Uncomfortable



If you can't say something nice don't say anything at all. That's the maxim my parents and teachers taught me. Somewhere along the line, that turned into this: If someone says something mean, keep them from saying it.

There's a disturbing new report from the Newseum, the nonprofit museum in Washington, D.C., devoted to the history of news and free speech advocacy. Titled: "Addressing the Real Crisis of Free Expression on Campus," it says that high school students have a different view of the First Amendment than do previous generations, even as support of the First Amendment has never been higher. It cited data from a survey conducted by the Knight Foundation: Even as 91 percent of high school students felt that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, only 45 percent agreed that people should be able to say in public something that others find offensive.

The Newseum called this an "alternative understanding" of the First Amendment that balances out an individual's right to free speech with a new right to non-offensive speech.

This comes at a time when some college campuses argue that some types of speech deemed offensive could produce the real dangers of violent protests. To protect public safety, the speech must be curtailed.

The latest example happened last month when the University of California at Berkeley reportedly told invited speaker Ann Coulter that it would accommodate her only if the speech were held at a date in the year when there would be few students and at a time in the day when fewer people would come. She chose not to come.

Now, I vehemently disagree with just about everything Ann Coulter has to say. This is a woman who has said that we'd have a better country if women couldn't vote, that we should bring back the poll tax (which historically kept black people from voting) and that our government should actively try to convert Muslim countries to Christianity. But I will also fight for her right to get up in front of a group of people and say those crazy things. That's because if people are allowed to silence Coulter, then groups aligned with Coulter can silence you or me.

Here at Humboldt, a student group tried to hold a public debate this year. It invited a range of local politicians. But the group couldn't get permission from the school to hold the event because of the administration's concerns over the same public safety issues that kept Coulter from Berkeley.

Historically, censorship has been used most often to silence minority opinions. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects us against censorship by government. Arguably that includes UC Berkeley and Humboldt State, which are public universities. More insidious is censorship by the crowd, which the Constitution does not protect. And that is the type of censorship we find more often on many college campuses. Even more disturbing is the growing acceptance of this kind of censorship. In the history of this country, government censorship has been used mostly to repress anti-war activists: First through the Sedition Act of 1798 when the country was on the brink of war with France, and during the lead up to World War I, when it was used to silence African-American press newspapers that were arguing that black citizens should refuse to fight for the rights of people in other countries when they had no such rights in their own country. Censorship by the crowd is almost always against people from the minority or people advocating for minority rights.

I think what is happening is that the Internet has empowered pockets of people of all ideological stripes for better or worse. When people are shut out of public conversations, they tend to want to control the conversation once they find themselves in a position of power. Groups traditionally silenced sometimes think that the only way they can participate in public conversation is to control the conversation. Think about it. Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with a group of people in which you couldn't get a word in? You find that the only way to get heard is to interrupt and shut down the dominant speakers. If you didn't do that, you'd never get heard.

If we systematically cut ourselves off from uncomfortable speech, we wrap ourselves in bubbles of comfort. When we surround ourselves with like-minded people, we forget how small this bubble is. Cocoons are comfortable but the protection they offer is an illusion. The first step to dictatorship is through control of speech and press. And the first victims of dictatorship are those who live in little bubbles.

I was taught that if I didn't have something nice to say to not say it. That was in elementary school. But history taught me that tyrants come to power when people refuse to speak the truth because the truth is not nice.

If you don't have something nice to say to me does that mean you aren't thinking it? What makes me feel more uncomfortable: Hearing people like Ann Coulter say I shouldn't have the right to vote or not having any clue how many people out there feel I shouldn't have the right to vote?

Donald Trump is now our president because I had no idea how many people were thinking the things I didn't want to hear. They kept their thoughts to themselves. Or at least they spoke their thoughts only within their own bubbles. My snuggly cocoon didn't let those nasty words penetrate. Inside my cocoon, Hillary Clinton was a sure bet.

Maybe, just maybe, if Ann Coulter had visited Humboldt State last year, the disconnect between my bubble of ultra-liberalism and the immense popularity of her ultra-conservatism would have hit me. Our founding fathers didn't draft the First Amendment to protect speech with which you agree. They drafted the First Amendment to protect speech you find offensive. That's because you can fight ideas you find offensive only if you allow people to express those ideas in the first place. When you try to suppress speech, the ideas simmer and spread.

— Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She was taught to keep not nice thoughts to herself. But if you insist on asking her how you look, she might tell you that you look like s**t.

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