The Lane County Chapter is pleased to award Kate Becker of Springfield First Place in their Student Essay Contest. The contest was open to all high school juniors and seniors in Lane County who were asked to write an essay on free speech or religious freedom. Ms. Becker is a senior at the Springfield Academy of Arts and Academics.She will be honored at the Lane County Chapter Annual Membership Meeting on Sunday, February 21st at the Unitarian Universalist Church. For more details, click here.

Freedom of Speech
Kate Becker

I find it difficult to imagine living in a world where what I can say or express is restricted, let alone forbidden. I believe that free speech isn’t a “privilege” or a right that is given, but an innate right. It is a birthright, not because you live in a country that declares it so, but because every sentient being has the right and responsibility to remain in control of their own mind and body.

Protecting this innate right is essential to keeping a healthy society where everyone is an equal, where we have the right to question those in power, and the way our land is run. Maintaining free speech is of utmost importance if we are to become and remain a truly free species.  Despite this, there are people who seek to prohibit free speech. There are those who seek to extinguish freedom altogether, generally for a certain group or class whether it is by race, gender, or wealth. I believe these people are the ones who create and/or support caste systems such as India's untouchables, Iran and Afghanistan's treatment of women as second-class citizens, as well as many other crimes against humanity.

Why target freedom of speech? Free speech finds it has enemies because restricting speech is one form of keeping people ignorant. Prevent the spread of information that could lead to change and it will limit the people’s power. To many of us this concept is intimidating and to some it sounds farfetched, however for others it has been and is still a reality.

One example is Amir Yaghoub-Ali, a student in Iran. Amir was recently served a prison sentence for “spreading propaganda against the state.” The “crime” was collecting signatures in Tehran Park to help promote the rights of women in the Islamic republic. Judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi said that while collecting signatures was not a crime itself, “Making propaganda against the state and disturbing public opinion” was. 

Despite Amir's message for the rights of women seeming valiant in many of our eyes,  Iran's religious leaders see it as something negative that should be censored. “Disturbing public opinion” was used to label Amir’s promotion of female rights as something preposterous, but my question is: when did equality for all become a disturbing concept?

Hate speech laws have become an issue in America.  I am in no way a fan of hate, but Voltaire illustrates my belief: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.” Hate speech is viewed by many as something that should be censored or forbidden as being unfavorable and perhaps...disturbing to public opinion. While in America hate speech may be censored to protect a certain group, in the Middle East speech is censored, women remain oppressed and female rights activists are unable to speak out without punishment. If we allow our speech to become restricted because some things said are unpleasant, then what happens when something such as homosexual rights is considered disturbing and intolerable?

Various forms of speech restriction exist, whether it is something as blatant as a corrupt government stomping down free speech activists, or something seemingly small such as misused food disparagement and hate speech laws. There is a recent and well known case of food disparagement: talk show host Oprah Winfrey was sued by the beef industry after her comment “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!” during a show about mad cow disease in 1996. America's food disparagement laws (now active in thirteen states) are set in place to prevent criticism of a food product's safety without “sound science” yet who decides what is or is not sound science? Food safety activists find that their speech is trivialized by being labeled “junk science.” Many people find these laws particularly concerning because they have the potential to compromise free speech for the sake of protecting the wallets of large food corporations and to keep people buying their products without any hesitation.

America has always been known as the land of the free where only a few forms of speech can be prosecuted.  Yet how difficult would it be to limit more speech once people ease into the idea of being told what can or cannot be said? Free speech is not dismantled overnight. Food disparagement and hate speech laws look well intentioned; however if they are twisted and interpreted in just the right way these can be a subtle force to shut the mouths of those who oppose the silencer.

The problem is that the solutions are as varied and complex as the issues. I wish I could type out a nice, clean, easy fix, but I can only say that if we support free speech advocates, maintain an awareness of the laws and events that take place, and continue to inform the public, then at least there is hope that we will always preserve the freedom we have and bring it one day to those in need.