Free Speech and the Cultural Balancing Act

Americans often take for granted that they can say just about anything without the looming concern of dire consequences. They can assume a position on something, announce it as loudly and vehemently as they like, and avoid censure regardless of the fact that someone else doesn’t approve of it. This idea was fundamental to the formation of the United States, and it is still upheld in terms of legal precedent and enforcement. Yet there has been a change in the way free speech is viewed and practiced that could profoundly alter our relationship to it. Perhaps this is most clearly seen in the concept of microaggressions, which I will detail shortly. While microaggressions might not directly contradict the idea of free speech, they profoundly affect the culture of unabridged speech and ideas.

The history of promoting free speech in this country is long and mostly consistent. Since it was included as a right in the First Amendment, freedom of speech has been a cornerstone of American culture. While some constraints on free speech do exist, such as laws regarding libel, slander, fighting words, etc., the courts often loosely interpret the free speech aspect of the First Amendment. This is seen in the case of Texas v. Johnson, where the Supreme Court ruled that laws banning flag burning were in violation of the First Amendment. The importance of free speech was so great in the view of the Supreme Court that they placed its value higher than that of respect for the country. Furthermore, as Delgado and Stefancic explain in their article “Four Ironies of Campus Climate,” the laws of free speech remain outside the realm of “legal realism” and are therefore very broad in their interpretation. The openness with which we legally view the right to free speech has in part led to a culture of openness in expression.

However, more recently, a shift in attitude toward how free speech should be interpreted has created cultural dissonance. In contrast to the broad legal interpretation, a relatively new social movement now attempts to put more constraints on what can be said. As Delgado and Stefancic point out, this is particularly true in Higher Education, where administrators have attempted to enact policies that would ban speech they deem as disrespectful to a particular group, often against legal policy and precedent. This changing attitude could potentially have a significant impact on the culture of free speech, as the emphasis on primarily harmonious discord could be translated into the curriculum of the institution. Consequently, this indoctrination might impact how free speech is viewed by future generations.

As a result of this new attitude, a multitude of emerging concepts challenge our traditional understanding of certain terminologies, to include the notion of microaggressions. Proponents of this movement seek to foster various forms of cultural awareness. Microaggressions are unconscious acts or figures of speech that are said to have a negative effect on another group of people, usually a minority. In “Deconstructing Macroaggressions, Microaggressions, and Structural Racism in Education,” Osanloo, Boske, and Newcomb describe microaggressions as “oppressive intercultural behaviors [that] are neither minor nor insignificant.” Examples of microaggressions include anything from the fairly obvious “‘I don’t think you are really Guatemalan. You don’t look Guatemalan to me’” to the previously sacrosanct “‘America is the land of opportunity.’” Regardless of what constitutes this new term, the microaggression’s existence is inherently reflective of an altering concept of free speech that deviates from open expression.

Nevertheless, many doubt the usefulness of this new and changing attitude. They view microaggressions as contradictory, counterproductive, and outright ridiculous. A radical example of support for microaggressions is exemplified by a student who, as Heller mentions in a New Yorker article, says, “‘I do think that there’s something to be said about exposing yourself to ideas other than your own, but I’ve had enough of that after my fifth year.’” This unwillingness to expose oneself to contradictory ideas and opinions is at the heart of microaggressions and utterly alien to the original notion of free speech. Some vehemently oppose this attitude and, in the words of Lukianoff and Haidt, see it as “vindictive protectiveness.” They view the departure from true free speech as hostile to some of this country’s most basic values. Hence, the definition of free speech, which was largely agreed upon for most of the country’s history, is under assault amidst heated opinions on both sides.  

The cultural shift in regard to free speech, while important in of itself, is perhaps merely an outward manifestation of a larger divergence in our views and culture. It is impossible to discuss free speech without discussing the notion of freedom itself. The creation of this country and the ideal of freedom was based on the open expression and discussion of ideas, and the freedom to do this is provided for in the First Amendment. The original view of freedom, then, is not only the freedom from oppression, but the freedom of thought, expression, discourse, and disagreement. The ability to have a discussion, and to disagree, is seen as the pinnacle of freedom itself, as it represents a world where homogeny of thought and obedience to a higher authority is not demanded nor even encouraged.

Herein lies the difference between this traditional view and the one promoted by the proponents of microaggressions and the culture of inhibited speech, for when people are continuously required to monitor their speech to the most extreme level of conscientiousness, they end up walking on eggshells in their expression of ideas. This, perhaps unwittingly, creates a lack of diverse thought, or at the very least, the expression of it, for fear of anyone stepping outside the bounds of acceptable and appropriate speech. Yet this is not seen by some as a disaster because the notion of freedom that this is based on is not only freedom from oppression, but also freedom from marginalization and from anything uncomfortable.

This difference in the very foundation of the concept of freedom is at the root of the different ideas regarding freedom of speech. This alternative line of reasoning could potentially extend beyond redefining free speech to drastically altering the ideological fabric of the country itself. The right to freedom of speech is as old as the country and has, for most of its history, been interpreted in a very loose and open sense, both legally and culturally. 

Yet the problem with this discussion is that it is hardly a discussion at all. People have always disagreed over the concept of what this country is and ought to be. When the country was first being formed, open discourse ultimately led to a fuller understanding of ideas being addressed, followed by compromise. Today’s “discourse” has become so muddled that it barely qualifies as such. We talk in such highly static, preset frameworks, with such unbridled authority in our own righteousness, that we can no longer understand one another. Perhaps the way to understanding free speech and how to approach it lies not in open speech but in the willingness to truly listen.


Brianna Russell-Weddington is a college student and avid community volunteer who believes in simplicity. She lives in the Colorado mountains at the oxygen deprived altitude of 9,200 ft. 

Photo By: Brianna Russell-Weddington