How Not to “Exercise Freedom of Speech”
May 8, 2008
A misunderstanding that FIRE occasionally runs into is the idea that if someone is exercising their freedom of expression in a non-spoken way, such as a posted display, it is a legitimate expressive response to deface or destroy that display as a countervailing exercise of freedom of expression. This idea is simply wrong. What brought this to my attention was this YouTube video from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which shows a textbook example of something that is NOT a legitimate expression of opinion:
Simply put, tearing down someone else's display is not expression—it's vandalism. The same goes for tearing down posters with which you don't agree—another illegitimate form of "expression" that FIRE often hears about. Students who engage in such activities can and should be punished, as the marketplace of ideas cannot survive when those opposed to an idea or expressive act are allowed to destroy all traces of it.
One other aspect of this video bears mentioning: at the very beginning of the video, the main person tearing up the crosses, identified in the video as Roderick King, says, "In 1973 it was made a constitutional right for a woman to have an abortion...Since it's a right, you don't have the right to challenge it." Nothing could be further from the truth—Americans have the right to speak out for or against any and all public policies in the United States. Hence the irony that the First Amendment protects even the speech of those who would try to abolish it. In a truly free society, it could be no other way.