Protecting rights vs. people

Protecting rights vs. people


The Bill of Rights came into effect in 1791, some 225 years ago. It is considered the most prominent document in American law and still affects policy to this day. However, as time has passed, many believe that the document has become somewhat archaic in today’s world of changing technology and attitudes.

The 1st Amendment is perhaps the most recognizable amendment in the Bill of Rights (along with the 2nd). It separates Church and State, grants the freedom of religion, allows people to peacefully protest the government, and permits the Freedom of Speech and Press. For this piece, we will focus solely on the Freedom of Speech provision.

When written in 1789, it was abundantly clear why this provision was put in: to criticize the government without reprimands. However, while people still reserve the right to protest the government, the chief concern with the amendment today is that it enables and grants individuals the freedom to criticize others.  The same freedom that I have to verbally attack the government also allows me to attack an individual.  As one can imagine, this is cause for quite a bit of pain, as it opens up avenues of harassment. Even the Supreme Court has tackled the issue of “hate speech,” arguing that as long as it does not promote immediate violence (such as that outlined in Brandenburg v. Ohio), you can say whatever offensive words you want about anyone, so long as they are not considered libel (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan).

This has been particularly controversial on college campuses. Many people, especially minorities, feel as though vitriolic speech is unproductive and damaging, so speech codes are needed to protect individuals’ sanctity. Babson College itself has policies in place to protect people from acts or words that “demean, degrade, threaten, or harass” people based on their identities. This includes sexual orientation, gender, race, nationality, age, and disability, to name a few. It is argued that speech codes that protect these identities actually promote a collaborative, positive environment in which people feel safe to express themselves. This allows the success of students because they can pursue their passions without being discriminated against.

However, critics of the speech codes argue that that rationale is inherently wrong: the real world doesn’t have any censorship policies and that people will be inevitably offended by someone. Speech codes are seen by many as a way of coddling and sheltering students from reality, therefore not expanding their horizons to challenging beliefs. It is argued that because certain ideas and words are not allowed to be even mentioned, then academic pursuits and advancements get choked. Furthermore, what is considered offensive is extremely arbitrary. What is deemed offensive to some may be menial to others, thus creating a shady grey area that can in essence turn into “thought control” by a few (most likely bureaucratic) governors. Additionally, simply enacting speech codes on campus won’t stop the hate either, since it is not necessarily the words that hurt but rather the intent behind words that can ultimately do the harm.