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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Guest Commentary

Freedom of Speech: Our obligations and responsibilities

The Constitution’s First Amendment states that each citizen has the right to freedom of speech. This right affords our nation scores of benefits — the oppressed can peacefully use words to burst into freedom, ingenuity is readily distributed to educate the people, and wrongdoers are served justice through exposé.

This freedom, however, does not come without a cost as it can be abused, its intended purpose distorted.

Every time you listen to someone speak — a politician, a Facebook post, a friend — you accept the risk of being exploited. How exactly can this be? When public figures speak, we hope and sometimes assume that they intend to spread useful ideas. We hope that the man behind the podium on the television is accurate in his re-tellings and true to his words.

In reality, people who exercise their right to free speech have no obligation to be 100 percent truthful or accurate. Therefore, the possibility of a public speaker abusing their fundamental right in order to exploit by taking advantage of a population’s ignorance, carelessness, or naiveté always looms.

There is a constant risk that the public speaker you are listening to is not an innovator, but a demagogue — one who manipulates speech to appeal to bigotry.

It is simply human nature to remain prejudiced rather than to change our flawed mindsets, and to mentally challenge ideas different from our own. This is the reason why it is easier for a speaker to appeal to a group’s prejudices than to teach novel concepts or new philosophies.  

Certainly, the right to free speech is dangerous. As our globe shrinks on the daily thanks to the Internet and comprehensive journalism, polarization within populations occurs faster than ever.

Globalization combined with using the power of speech to influence millions can majorly shift public stances, and can even paradoxically overpower smaller factions of voices that ultimately become silenced.

In conclusion, public speakers have a responsibility to appropriately deliver to their listeners, meaning that they must choose to be an orator that benefits the people rather than benefiting an ego. This responsibility, however, is impossible to continuously be regulated and upheld.

This brings me to a final solution that ensures a safeguard against demagoguery: the listener must be the one to accept risk when listening to public speech, and must use this information to be wary that words may carry malicious intent.

The right to free speech is beneficial only if we simultaneously practice our responsibility and freedom to question and analyze and use these tools to evaluate whether the man with the funny-looking hair on TV really will make our country great again.

Elissa Nguyen is a chemistry sophomore who won The Cougar’s Constitution Day Contest. To submit your own guest column, email [email protected]

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