The Limits on Freedom of Speech

I figured dinnertime was a good time.  We all sat in the kitchen with our bowls of leftover chili.  “I’ve been thinking a lot about Freedom of Speech,” I said.

What followed was a very brief discussion, mostly between the parents, about the incredible right and responsibility that is Freedom of Speech.  We probably sounded preachy.  The Big E lost interest quickly.  Ace chimed in with, “But there are limits.”  A perfect segue.

“Yes!  What are the limits on Freedom of Speech?” I asked.

E munched blue corn chips, studiously avoiding the beans in the bowl.

“You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a theater when there isn’t a fire,” said Ace.

“Unless you think there’s a fire,” said The Big E.

“And you can’t threaten to kill someone.”

“So Freedom of Speech means you can say mean things about a person’s nationality?” I said.


“And their race?”


“And their ethnicity?”  (brief digression into the meaning of ethnicity)


“And their sexuality?”


“And their gender?”


As it turns out, just because you can say offensive things, doesn’t mean you should.  In the current election cycle, He-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless provides a stunning example of Freedom of Speech run amok.  Sometimes I wonder whether H-W-S-R-N is simply bringing out the worst in people, the worst that was carefully tucked away, the worst that, in the past, would only be cautiously displayed in private conversation with one’s closest confidante.

People seemed nicer before social media.

Oberlin College, my beloved alma mater, is once again getting a lot of press, this time for distressing reasons.  An assistant professor posted several statements on Facebook that appear to most people to be blatantly anti-Semitic.  Once I picked my jaw up off the floor (How in the world did she make it through the hiring process?), I tried to weed through some of the thoughtful responses examining the meaning of Academic Freedom.  In this case, there seem to be two issues: 1) Does Academic Freedom allow professors to say things that are offensive?  2) Does Academic Freedom allow professors to say things that aren’t true?  (Curiously, Academic Freedom seems to provide more protection when professors spout un-truths outside of their realm of expertise.)

Oberlin’s President Krislov, himself a practicing Jew, defended the professor’s Academic Freedom while questioning her statements.  The Chair of the Board of Trustees issued a far more censorious statement: Anti-Semitism has no place at Oberlin.

The ultimate irony is that the professor teaches in the Rhetoric and Composition department; She understands exactly the power and influence of words.  I’d like to hear from her.  What’s going on?  What did you hope to accomplish with these posts?  Is this some sort of twisted social media experiment to be used for instruction?  She’s currently keeping her own counsel, claiming that anything she says now may influence tenure decisions.  I’ve got news: That horse already left the barn.

During my time at Oberlin, I didn’t engage many of my professors in extra-academic conversation.  Perhaps this was my loss.  Even in my “Medical Ethics, Religion, and Law” course, I had no idea what my professor believed personally.  I was shocked to learn much later that he was staunchly anti-choice.  He did not metaphorically tweet his views.  He did not proselytize on Facebook.  He didn’t try to sway our naïve minds in one direction or the other.

In his class, I studied the distinction between a profession and a job.  Profess-ors are held to a different standard.  I came away believing that in a profession, a person must use her influence carefully, in a manner that respects the profess-ee and the discipline itself.

I’m watching with interest as the Oberlin story unfolds.  President Krislov, to his credit, is not taking hasty, careless action.

And in our household, we will continue our discussion of Freedom of Speech, and how to temper it with love, empathy, and compassion.


Musical Moment 

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