Is Free Speech Really Free?

Free Expression Tunnel

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” is a popular adage dating as far back as the 1930s. The meaning of the phrase is simple: it is impossible to get something for nothing. A quick glance at the latest news headlines may just support that fact. The constitutional right to free speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas absent persecution by the government. Freedom of speech was a principle of our earliest founding documents, and has the distinguished honor of being the first of protected rights in our Bill of Rights. Still, this begs the question – is anything really free?

The quick answer is simply, no. Free speech will always come at a cost. That is not to say that the cost will be freedom, or that the intent will be to limit or neutralize thoughts and ideas. But, when given the opportunity to share your thoughts with the world, if those thoughts are hateful, vitriolic, or patently violent, you must be prepared to pay a cost. That cost could be your reputation, your friends, your job, or even the opportunity to receive a university education – but it must be one you are prepared to pay.

College is as much about raising your emotional quotient (or EQ) as it is developing your intellectual quotient (or IQ). Developing students who are prepared to engage the world and solve the most complex of problems is a critical part of NC State’s mission. When years pass, and the question is raised: What have NC State scholars contributed to the world? The answer should never be disdainful and divisive speech. Further, we should never assume that women and students of color are the only ones affected by hateful speech. They undoubtedly feel the sting of those transgressions more acutely, but be assured that if you are a member of the NC State community who has not objected to behavior that is discriminatory, harassing, or otherwise offensive – you are a part of the problem. University officials and supervisors always have an obligation to be aware of any peer harassment that affects students on campus, however; to the extent peer harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability is sufficiently serious that it creates a hostile environment – the university must take action to remedy the situation. That action should not be limited to the individual actors but also should speak to a larger, systemic response to address the impact the behavior has had on the entire university community.

When you have a chance to be a leader and take a stand against these behaviors, you should take it. Some would like to believe that free speech gives us license to say anything, but it is important to understand that like anything else in the world, it can come at immense cost. For more information about the implications of peer harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex or disability, please see the Department of Education’s 2010 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter.

Jordyne Blaise is assistant equal opportunity officer and deputy Title IX officer at NC State.

For this article and more, see the full Diversity Digest.