The Right to Non-Offensive Speech: Reinterpreting the First Amendment


Non-Offensive SpeechR

The “right to non-offensive speech” took center stage at two recent Newseum and Washington Post events on campus speech. There is growing concern about this reinterpretation of the First Amendment on campuses, according to panelists, including Jeffrey Herbst, President and CEO of the Newseum.

President Donald Trump tweeting important announcements is exemplary of a digital media age where what we can say, should say, and how we say it has prompted a reexamination of the First Amendment. This is especially true on campuses, panelists at the “The First Amendment on Campus” symposium said.

“What we are finding is that students are coming onto campuses already censoring themselves and that universities are reinforcing that” Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, told Bloomberg BNA.

Student attitudes regarding free expression are a form of self-censorship that stunt the intellectual discourse that should be happening on campuses, according to the panelists. The “right to non-offensive speech” stems from the education system in primary and secondary schools, Catherine Ross, a law professor at George Washington University, said.

“Educators are not lawyers and don’t really understand and execute the First Amendment,” Ross said. Schools are enforcing polite behavior that conflict directly with the First Amendment, according to Ross.

Schools should not be concerned with preventing offensive language, Ross said. They should instead teach kids in K-12 how to handle profound disagreements as they come up. 

College is one of the last times that students are forced to deal with people with contrasting ideas, one panelist pointed out. After that, they encircle themselves with people of the same tastes, values, and opinions. Digital media takes it a step further by allowing the “blocking” of posts, people, and conflicting ideas entirely.

Only 16 percent of college students would agree that Americans do a good job at looking for and listening to differing views, according to a recent Gallup poll sponsored by the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute.

Throughout the panel discussions it was reiterated that the First Amendment protects all speech, even hate speech. 

“I’d rather know if someone is hateful because that way there is an opportunity to talk”  Ross LaJeunesse, Global Head of International Relations at Google, said at a “Free to State” event hosted by The Washington Post. 

Students lack knowledge about the First Amendment when they enter universities, according to Christina Paxson, President of Brown University. They “don’t understand it, don’t appreciate it. Why would they? They’ve never learned it,” Paxson said at the Washington Post event.

All speech is protected by the First Amendment, the panelists said. Students, in particular, should be taught how to keep divisive conversations civil and to recognize what can and should be said out loud, panelists at both events said.