The misinformation in public discourse about our most important rights – those protected by the Constitution – is apparent on discussion threads on every major issue. The next time you see an incorrect statement about our constitutional rights, link to this blog post. When people don’t know their constitutional rights, they cannot exercise them.
Earlier this month, journalists exposed Hollywood’s open secret that movie executive Harvey Weinstein harassed and assaulted female actresses. Weinstein denies allegations of non-consensual sex, and he deserves his presumption of innocence in a courtroom, where evidence can be tested and weighed. The conversation has, rightly, moved to larger cultural forces that sustained and facilitated Weinstein’s abuses of power. Last Sunday, social media exploded with the hashtag “MeToo,” so that women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed can share their stories. Soon after that, the meta conversation began about whether men, or gender non-conforming women, should also share their stories.
I believe that answer is a resounding yes. Calls for silencing certain comments as irrelevant are an illegitimate, and counterproductive, way of simplifying and impoverishing a conversation.
I began thinking about this post on Yom Kippur, the day when Jews ruminate on their sins.
This week, students affiliated with the College of William & Mary’s Black Lives Matter movement shut down a speaking event featuring an alumna from the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU speaker had come to discuss “Students and the First Amendment.” I do not support the tactic of hijacking a speaking event for one’s own purposes, even for a good cause. A coordinated effort to shout down a scheduled speaker is not protected First Amendment activity. Nor do I agree with the protesters’ sentiment that “liberalism is white supremacy.” The protection of hate speech is a critical component of maintaining robust, viewpoint-neutral speech protections, and liberalism has likely promoted civil rights better than any other system of political thought.
However, the activists who refused to even let students interact with the ACLU’s Claire Gastañaga highlight an important point with which I have been reckoning: the First Amendment is process-based and somewhat justice-neutral. The First Amendment provides a methodology – open exchange of ideas – for attaining truth and reaching the best results, but must remain fairly agnostic about what those results are. My own views about the First Amendment, and my exaltation of open, dispassionate dialog as a way of reaching enlightenment, often lead to political paralysis or a ceding of political responsibility to others. Strong belief in a values-neutral process like free speech can lead to political disengagement. The aftermath of the heartbreaking events in Las Vegas provide a useful lens for my reckoning with the sins of the First Amendment.