What Are the Limits of Free Speech for Controversial Opinions?

Here at PolicyMic, we are in the midst of a serious freedom of expression debate. When articles were published attempting to revive the “birther” debate and unequivocally label global warming a myth, the comment sections lit up. Given the dubious sourcing of both articles, dozens of commentators took issue with the topics at hand and, to be honest, the debate has never burned brighter. In true democratic fashion, the PolicyMic folks even sought the input of its contributors regarding the publishing of such pieces. Ultimately, if PolicyMic wants to establish the “first fully democratic media that promotes new voices [and] thoughtful discussion,” it will embrace these controversial voices.

For example, it is well-known that Columbia University has hosted a veritable all-star team of controversial speakers in the past, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and Serbian President Milorad Dodik, all of whom boast a shaky understanding of basic human rights. More recently, Columbia University’s College Republicans invited Jim Gilchrist, founder of the anti-illegal immigration Minuteman Project, to address the campus. But while Gilchrist certainly has little in common with the aforementioned cast, the PolicyMic community ought to embrace controversial viewpoints like his and give people like him the opportunity to address a public forum (He promptly declined Columbia's invitation).

Whether we are talking about Gilchrist at a prestigious institution or your bafflingly racist uncle at a family reunion, the right to say whatever you like about whatever you like is as American as skipping church to watch football. Gilchrist declined the invite because he deemed it “pointless to speak to a campus where witch-hunters of free speech so often dictate, through intimidation and disruption, who will be allowed to participate in liberty and who will not.” Gilchrist has a right to shy away from the appearance: When he last spoke at Columbia in 2006, students stormed the stage and ended his speech.

At PolicyMic, precluding an opinion from being published prevents a productive debate before it has a chance to develop. Listening closely to those you disagree with provides us with much-needed perspective, and better yet, the opportunity to prove them wrong. Allowing tendentious speakers to advance a given agenda provides those who disagree with them to ask uncomfortable questions and expose the fallacy of their position, if indeed one exists. For example, when the “birther” article surfaced on PolicyMic, a heated debate began that produced a variety of productive points and aroused serious passion.

To be clear, anything published here should be well researched, thoughtful, and defensible. The “birther” and global warming articles may have left many readers with a bad taste in their mouths, but the topics remain relevant to some, and therefore should not be censored. Had each article incorporated additional sources and contributed to the broader policy debate in more constructive ways, perhaps there would have been fewer objections. On the other hand, other forums will better serve those asserting that Obama’s secret allegiance to Islam is bringing about the downfall of America, for example. Yet, there are serious policy discussions to have, regardless of which side of the aisle you find yourself, and I can’t imagine a better forum than PolicyMic.

See you all in the comment section.

Photo Credit: Linus Bohman

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Todd Ruffner

Currently working at a DC-based nonprofit that focuses on US policy toward the Middle East and democratic movements within the region. I am also a recent graduate of Ohio State University's Near Eastern and Languages Master's Program and am particularly interested in democracy development throughout the Middle East. I conducted my Master's research on Iran-Iraq border relations in the 20th century with a focus on Khuzestan and the Shatt al-Arab. I am also a proficient Farsi speaker and have lived in both Cairo and Damscus while completing my undergraduate studies at Elon University.

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