OPINION: What does “free speech” mean?


Liam Al-Hindi

Black background with a speech bubble. In white words, "what is free speech?"
Contributor Liam Al-Hindi shares his opinion on what free speech actually is.

If I were to name the biggest accomplishment of the 21st century, it would be that we as a species have created so many new and powerful ways of communicating. I don’t call it a gift or a privilege. I call the internet the natural evolution of our basic human right to express ourselves. We don’t just have technology to thank for that: We also live in a country founded on the right to say what we mean without legal repercussions, the right to “free speech.” But this has also inevitably led to what I would call “abuses” of this freedom.

“I think people are well-acquainted with their rights, but not well-acquainted with their responsibilities,” said Hugh Reilly, director of the UNO School of Communication. “The responsibilities are accuracy and the willingness to tolerate other points of view. I think it’s our responsibility [as a society] to be well-informed.”

No one can conceivably spend even an hour on the internet and not come across an opinion that they oppose. This is how progress is made: An individual expresses an idea, the opposition voices their side and discourse ensues. But it is naïve to expect this model. We, as a culture, have grown used to good and bad ideas getting equal exposure on the same platform. Because we see both sides in the same space, we assume that they both must have equal merit. But in my experience, this is far from the truth.

Everyone reading this can come up with plenty of benign examples that they have experienced. Maybe it’s within something related to popular culture, or entertainment, or art, where a dichotomy forms in the comment section of a movie review, and the battle lines are drawn. This exercise of free speech is, of course, without any real stakes. But things change when it’s no longer about whether or not “The Last Jedi” was good and is instead about medical decisions for newborns. I won’t get into the specifics of Jenny McCarthy and her fear mongering campaign, but I do want to cite the effects. McCarthy is a widely known advocate for the anti-vaccination movement, which convinces parents that a dead child is better than an autistic one. Just last year, the United Nations Foundation named “Vaccine Hesitancy” a global threat. They cited a Center for Disease Control and Prevention tally that determined a quadrupling of unvaccinated children since 2001. Because Jenny McCarthy was given the same platform – and arguably more exposure – than actual medical professionals, the waters have been muddied.

“There are people that are gonna’ want to believe that,” Reilly said. “Eventually she was discredited … but the damage was done.”

That is the true cost of free speech. “A damn high price,” Reilly said. “The target [for persuasion] is the people in the middle that can have their mind changed one way or the other.”

It is among those people in the middle that the damage is done. I am a Muslim, an Arab and the son of an immigrant, so when I see people online advocating for a mass deportation of Muslims, and the searching and seizing of people at our borders, I fear not for the opinions of the opposition, but for the opinions of those who still haven’t decided. Free speech is used not only as a tool to share one’s opinion, but as a weapon to make people like me afraid. By no means do I want to restrict free speech. Conversely, I am asking those of you who share my fear to use your free speech. I see far more hate on the internet, taped to walls and handed out at booths than I do opposition to that hate.

“The advantages are all to the people on the side of misinformation,” Reilly said. This is unwaveringly true.

This is an opinion piece, and it is my opinion that the people with hateful, harmful and toxic ideas are far more vocal than those without. So, get vocal. Ignoring the opposition doesn’t cut it – the opposition has their platform.

Reilly said, “Try to consider the other person’s point of view,” and I agree. Consider the opposition’s point of view, so that we can fight it. As Reilly also said, we must “use free speech to liberate and to inform.”

Hateful people are using their free speech – now it’s our turn.