(Wikimedia Commons/Oren Rozen)

So long as freedom of speech is incorporated into the U.S. Constitution, free speech remains a point of contention after any court decision, public policy or academic research. The fact that everyone can have a say and possess their own perspective makes this debate so ubiquitous and inevitably chaotic.

When two people who have been living in vastly different social niches express free speech at the same time from places where terrorism posts are going rampant versus a rather politically stable and developed country, it will be discussed based on different understandings, which can often lead to disagreements or indignation. Whenever an inciting event has been attributed to so-called freedom of speech, we must figure out what freedom of speech really means before laying blame on it. This right, disoriented by different personal and social factors, is being used as a scapegoat to cover true issues, like racial disparity or crackdown on human rights.

When we are talking about free speech, we certainly aren’t saying “I can do anything under any circumstances” or “the content of speech shall never be under scrutiny of social values, norms or cultural practices,” nor is it “the communication between me and other people are absolutely inferior to the expression of my own will.” The colloquial discussion on free speech often accompanies the long-term stereotype that this constitutional right can be always exercised in its most radical, complete form. Yes, free speech has a lot of connotations, but the root of controversy consists in the overextension of its definition that doesn’t look into the fact that freedom of speech is indeed both guarded and under regulations at the same time. 

However, what’s more important is the hotly debated ideological, political differences nested inside the words. For example, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke full of compassion to address the world, some Russian citizens preferred to say the term war or special operation rather than the word invasion. When conservative political commentator Heather Mac Donald spoke to Emory students in 2020, some people set up a safety space concurrently for students who were disturbed by her contentious assertion about racial bias and rape-free campuses. When the United Nations Human Rights Council reported on their investigation of the Myanmar military coup, the general public was upset about the gruesome treatment of ordinary people there. Emotions were not stirred merely by the act of exercising freedom of speech. Instead, some Russians were distraught when being tagged as invaders, many victims of toxic campus culture at Emory were shaken by Mac Donald’s negation of their experiences and a lot of people outside Myanmar were staggered by the horrific crackdown on citizens’ human rights. In these cases, we should avert our attention from whether their language choices were appropriate, and instead prioritize the real problems as suggested. If we were to let people abstain from speaking their own ideas in college just because speeches about politics or human rights can evoke a scorching debate, the problems behind them would never be treated with due attention.

The attack on freedom of speech also derives from the developing impatience toward public events and the toxic competition among news outlets with their often-exaggerated headlines. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) professor Maryanne Wolf described a trending phenomenon that people are reading the content of articles less and less; instead, they mainly direct their eyes to the headlines. In turn, newspapers and other media outlets are racing against each other to spice their titles up. They are more and more prone to posting emotionally charged headlines and articles, thereby impacting people’s judgment on social issues. We are currently living in an era when disinformation is contagiously spreading through the internet to every corner of the world. Interestingly, the New York Times published an analysis contributing to the conversation about current speech regulation and extreme amounts of disinformation in this historical period. Nevertheless, if we ponder one step further, the root of controversy on whether to tighten the regulation of speech rests on the misinformation itself. Right now, all the distorted messages spiraling around the internet outweigh a discussion on free speech for right now.

Solely blaming free speech doesn’t actually help with exercising freedom of speech. Honing in on the matter of free speech whenever there is provocative language is not going to foster an environment where people can feel free to express their ideas. In fact, it would be detrimental to higher education in the sense that universities, as a hub for new ideologies and thoughts, are not supposed to separate themselves from the complicated world outside. Free speech becomes the straw man bearing the diatribes intended for problems in social institutions. Shifting the focus of discussion from free speech to crooked social norms and unrealistic policies would be more productive to come up with a practical, meaningful proposal instead of mere anger.  

Though the debate of free speech might continue on indefinitely, with the help of people — particularly students, at least — the social problems contained in those controversial views could be eased, and less and less people will have to suffer from them in the future.

John Wang (23Ox) is majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology and philosophy.