Really Free? | Annie Lu

Really Free?

by Annie Lu

Not many of us ever give thought to what it means to live in a country that champions freedom of expression; we take for granted the ability to vent on social media, to vocally follow the presidential elections with mounting disbelief (and other stronger feelings), to say whatever you want about whomever you want, whenever you want. But this is becoming increasingly untrue.

In an age where “political correctness” trumps some of our first amendment rights, the question arises: is our speech really free? Constitutionally, of course, we still have the ability to express whatever opinions strike our fancy. The government of the United States cannot rightly persecute you for speaking out against them–though this may not be true of all countries. North Korea is a prime example, where the government maintains an information blockade restricting citizens’ rights to an almost inconceivable level to those of us who are accustomed to the loose-lipped culture of our country. Less extreme censorship practices occur even in modern China, where innumerable media sources are curtailed.

This is in no way to claim that free speech is and always will be purely virtuous right. More and more often, the words that come out of our mouth and through our keyboards are contested in their legitimacy. What once might have been the pride of a nation has become a hotbed of controversy.

To hit the nail on the head, in early 2017, protests erupted with an incandescent fervor at UC Berkeley–not too far from us–regarding the planned appearance of renowned public speaker Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos, a self-proclaimed cultural libertarian with barrages of criticism regarding political correctness and social justice, incited outrage from those opposing his views. The riot involved no shortage of violence, with pepper spray and arson and rock-throwing at the police. There are two ways to consider this event: did Milos Yiannopoulos have the right to speak out at a public college, regardless of the unpleasantness of his words? His rights to free expression are well-protected under our Constitution, but in an educational environment, perhaps that speech ought to be limited to his own private conversations. On the other hand, do student protestors have the right to act out when they feel aggravated? Protests are certainly a form of expression–and a powerful one, at that–but violence is hardly the way to go about exciting change.

It is only human nature to detest limits–hardly anyone would admit to enjoying being told what or what not to do. Thus we relish the freedom to express our beliefs in whatever ways are at hand. But there are reasons to shorten that leash. Oftentimes, people are lashed out at for saying things that may be construed as not “politically correct”. While the term political correctness itself does not denote a negative meaning, it is commonly used as a pejorative–our liberal society scorns the excessive care with which we address modern issues. But we do recoil at terms that seem derogatory towards a certain population or provide the spark to a torrent of internet-insult-exchanging. People in our society should never feel ostracized for what they are or what they choose to be.

Maybe there is a need to tiptoe around topics that could seriously hurt some parties, and maybe we should engage in discourse about those issues instead. What truly is the best way to address the most contentious matters in the modern world remains under discussion, for now.