A Chilling Silence

Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Wilde’s wisdom reminds us of the importance of anonymity: it gives a voice to those who are too afraid to speak. From the early days of the American Revolution to the recent triumphs of gay rights activists, history has shown us that the voices of the most marginalized are the voices most worth protecting. These voices know that, debate, and education were necessary to win their causes, and for that they needed the freedom of speech. The essence of free speech, the freedom to anonymously express ideas and opinions without censorship, is key to a flourishing social narrative. This includes protection of minority opinions regardless of whether or not they are unpopular or uncomfortable.

Of course, not all speech should be permitted. Unlike expressions or declarations of opinions, some speech acts carry meanings beyond their words and are subject to restrictions. Namely, threats, slander, libel, obscenities, and “fighting words” that directly incite violence or harm do not qualify as free speech. These belong to a class of words, as stated by Justice Murphy in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, whose “very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace… Such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality,” the Justice continued.

But the right to free speech is now under attack by student protesters who misunderstand the meaning of free expression. A list of demands made by a group called Black Students of Emory University has called to restrict access to a platform for free and anonymous expression. Among the demands is a request to censor, or “geofence,” the online anonymous app Yik Yak. Specifically, they demanded that Emory “formally request that Yik Yak, Inc. install a geofence … in order to protect our students from subjection to intolerable and psychologically detrimental material.” Emory University has responded to this specific demand by creating a task force to examine the feasibility of censorship. This suggestion that censorship is a legitimate course of action is outrageous, and we must take a stand against it.

According to the list of demands, “it is impermissible to allow racist students to terrorize Black people on any form of media and the anonymity that Yik Yak provides is a breeding ground for behavior of that sort.” They complain that such a platform for free speech fosters “intolerable and psychologically detrimental material.” The Black student activists who wrote the demands voice many legitimate concerns, but no claim to victimhood should ever be used as an excuse for censorship.

In particular, some Black student activists contend that anonymity removes the consequences and accountability of speech. Anonymity may be used to spread hurtful rumors and messages, but at the same time, it is a fundamental component of free speech. It gave America’s founders the freedom to fight tyranny. It gave abolitionists the courage to speak for freedom. And it continues to grant safety to those who cannot speak or criticize ideas without drastic repercussions. Attacking Yik Yak just because it is anonymous is still an attack against our right to free expression. Countless American men and women have risked their lives to protect this constitutional right. Free speech is fundamental to every free and functional democracy. This is not something we can lose so easily to political correctness. Racist comments may be contemptible, but censorship will not solve these social woes. The censorship of disagreeable remarks is truly a pathetic course of action.

If we want to improve our society, especially for minorities, we must protect free speech. We cannot begin to convince others of the faults of racism if there is no debate. Free speech protects every viewpoint. If we cease the rights of others to speak, we also end the ability to change their minds. There is no clear solution to ending bigotry, but debate and education facilitated by free speech is a step in the right direction. Racism and intolerance are important problems to discuss, but we cannot begin to debate if there is no debate allowed.

Yik Yak may not be the best platform for social discourse, but it is still an outlet of free speech worth protecting. In public, political correctness often hampers the discussion of many sensitive issues. In contrast, the anonymity of Yik Yak allows for an open platform where students can express themselves freely. The majority of posts on Yik Yak are mundane, but there are still many considerable discussions about controversial issues that occur. Yik Yak is a voice for students who are otherwise unable to speak their minds. Hurtful ideas occasionally leak through the system, but it is not uncommon to see anonymous users rebut those ideas. There are certainly better debate platforms than Yik Yak, but social media like Twitter proves that you can still have robust conversations with 140 characters.

The legal exceptions to free speech also obviously apply to Yik Yak, but the majority of comments on Yik Yak include neither “fighting words” nor direct threats toward others. Yik Yak does not tolerate and continues to make efforts to eliminate illegal speech. Violations are either automatically removed by the application’s algorithm, or they are reported to authorities. This call for censorship over “intolerable materials” is an over-the-top outcry over hurt feelings. Although the student protestors can fairly make the point that threats should not be prohibited, hurt feelings do not preclude rights. Free speech is necessary to advance any civil discourse. Bad ideas must be challenged in the intellectual arena. If we value social progress, we cannot censorship.

As an institution of higher education that claims to value free speech, Emory should be ashamed for considering this course of action. Emory’s mission statement grounds itself in the ideas of free speech, academic freedom and intellectual diversity. Our greatest strengths come from a diversity of opinions. As a private institution, Emory has the legal ability to censor us, but this censorship would contradict the values that higher education claims to uphold.

Censorship is not the solution. Censorship is a despicable and petty tool of political suppression. It is the apparatus of every tyranny, and it is the most anti-intellectual idea that persists in our culture today. The solution to social ills must come from debate and social discourse. If we sacrifice free speech, we sacrifice a right that predicates all other freedoms. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, “the freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.”

It is dangerous to confuse offensive language and illegal speech acts. Although threats should not be permitted, we must have the courage to protect opinions we find offensive. True tolerance is the defense of everyone’s rights to express opinions despite disagreement. We must defend every channel of speech available to us, or we risk losing the right to speak freely. Censoring Yik Yak sidesteps the actual problems our community faces and jeopardizes our civil liberties in the process. As an elite university, we can do better. I oppose this course of action, and I hope you all will join me in pressuring the University to oppose this measure as well.

Alex is a College senior from Atlanta, Georgia. 

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