Is freedom of speech really free?

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Should journalists print offensive and/or controversial material just to demonstrate freedom of speech? How important is that freedom in getting a conversation started?

These questions have been fuel for discussion in our newsroom recently as we’ve watched the response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting in France on Jan. 7.

This issue’s guest commentator, COCC history professor, Jessica Hammerman points out on page 3; “Free speech has a right to be offensive.”

That, however, is apparently not the belief of some major publishers. Following the Jan. 7 attacks, the largest university press in the world, Oxford University Press, warned its authors not to mention pigs or pork in their books. Their reason: to avoid offending Muslims and Jews, according to the International Business Times.

The Broadside supports diversity, and respect for cultural, ethnic, and religious beliefs are a core value here.

However, a media source not printing or airing something because it could offend someone is ludicrous. After all, doesn’t freedom of speech exist so controversial issues CAN be discussed?

The abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, equal pay for equal work and more recently, marriage equality, were all heavily-controversial issues. If publication sources had refused to print and discuss those topics, beliefs and laws may never have changed. Media sources shying away from an issue and/or topic effectively eliminates it from public discussion. If there is no discussion, there can be no change.

Not publishing controversial material is complicated on an even deeper level, though. If the aim is not to offend, then who decides what is offensive? Topics can be controversial because they counter existing cultural and religious norms. That means almost any topic can be grounds for controversy. If fear of controversy comes into play, what can a media source publish?

Why in our current culture do controversial topics create so much violence?

This issue of violence in response to freedom of speech isn’t just an issue facing international journalists either.

On page 5, you can read of the violence Phil Busse, current editor of The Source, has faced as a 21’st century journalist.

Violence is not the answer. But it’s unfortunately often the easy, quick answer for some. Violence doesn’t require reflection or the need to worry about change. Published material should instead be cause for conversation and inspiration for change.

Molly Svendsen | The Broadside
(Contact: msvendsen@cocc.edu)

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