When Is “Free Speech” Not?

WordsWhat is “free speech”? If you’re a writer, you’ve doubtless come across the concept. What does it mean? How does it look? Act? Behave?

For some, “free speech” means “we all have the right to an opinion and to voice that opinion.” Nobody can tell anyone “what they can and can’t say.”  No constraints. No boundaries. Anything goes. Period.

Get Lost, Cookie?

Example: I came across a political blog the other day that contained profanity and some tasteless content, IMHO.  What was said wasn’t an issue; it was how it was said. The blog owner asked readers to comment, share links, etc. Out of respect for my readers, I politely suggested that I’d be happy to do so if the language could be cleaned up. Wrapped in the Bill of Rights and “free speech,” the response was basically, “Get lost, cookie.”

So I did.

When Is “Free Speech” Not?

Realizing that people have a right to disagree and disagree passionately on a variety of topics, I wondered at what point, if any, is “free speech” not free? Is there a point where it becomes costly?

Tossing that out to others recently, the question generated quite a discussion – and many different views and nuances.  Here’s some feedback. “Free speech” may not be “free” when it:

  • Compromises your integrity.
  • Violates your standards.
  • Is intentionally offensive.
  • Your choice of words or writing style is so abrasive that your point gets lost in the flames.
  • All semblance of responsibility and professionalism are jettisoned.
  • Is used to excuse limited vocabulary or lazy writing.
  • Costs you readers.

Someone also pointed out that “free speech” is not an absolute right. “You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater,” he said.

In America, we hold the Bill of Rights dear. The right to free speech, including the right to disagree, is held dear. And they should be. But are writers held to a higher standard? When? Does that depend on context? Audience? Or something else?

Where do “free speech” and responsibility intersect? Or do they? Does it matter?


Thirty Years & a Tassel Toss: What One Non-Writing Prof Taught Me About Writing

Biola Sign 4“I can’t believe it’s been thirty years!” she quipped, blue eyes dancing. “Didn’t we just graduate last year?”

Looking backwards quick enough to generate dual whiplash, we peeled back thirty years in a single bound, recalling cafeteria food, favorite chapels, best profs, dumbest assignments (yes, I confess), a championship basketball team, dorm life, concerts, and The Dreaded Finals Week like they were… well… last week.

Later, I thought about all the people I met during my college career.  Those years generated countless friendships, fond memories and shining moments – as well as a few “speed bumps” and disappointments.  Funny, isn’t it, how the down times seem to fade into irrelevance and the good times loom large as time marches on?

Another Recollection

“You won’t remember much from the academic part of this class” I recall Dr. George Nishida, Sociology Prof Extraordinaire, saying one bright fall morning. “You won’t remember today’s lecture or this week’s assignment or Friday’s exam after you’re graduated and gone,” he smiled, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses. “What you’ll remember is the people. The best part about your college career will be the people you shared it with. What matters is the relationships.”

Only People Can Do That

This was before the Internet. Before Facebook. Or email. (I know, I know. I’m a dinosaur.)

But you know what? Technology can’t offer the kind of insight Dr. George did.  The Internet doesn’t connect those dots. Social media can’t take the place of lunch in the cafeteria. Cramming with a classmate to pass Dr. Mitchell’s Old Testament 1 final.  Or stringing popcorn garlands and sipping hot chocolate  with “Dr. George” and his family at their annual Christmas open house.

Only people can do that.

Let Me Ask

So let me ask: if your web site, blog and Twitter account gave up the ghost tomorrow, would it matter?  A fair amount of pulled-out hair would doubtless ensue, but would a technology crash – like a computer crash – totally destroy all of your relationships?

My blog and other outlets have given me the chance to meet and interact with some really cool people.  I’ve gotten to know and learn from some awesome fellow travelers.  I’ve grown to appreciate each one, especially those who are generous enough to leave a quick comment or respond with a sentence or two in response to my latest newsletter.

But here’s the thing: although it may have helped establish those relationships, technology isn’t at the heart of those relationships. People are.

Bottom line: If you’re Facebooking or tweeting or blogging to ignite that kind of connection, great. Just don’t stop there.  Kick it up a notch or two. Likewise, if you’re using social media just to boost your numbers, increase your stats or as a head trip, you’re pretty much missing the point.

Not Exactly

Long-term isolation isn’t exactly a writer’s best friend. You can’t spend all day, every day staring at a computer screen, checking your email every five minutes or logging status updates ten times a day and expect to develop as a writer.  To do that, you need people.  Other writers.  Their creativity, energy, and yes, productive critiques and “utches.”

I get some of my best ideas by bouncing them off other people.  I’m inspired, encouraged, challenged and uplifted by connecting with other writers.  By “connecting” I mean face-to-face if possible. Grabbing a latte, a book review, writer’s group or a luscious slice of raspberry white chocolate anything together. When distance or other factors makes this impossible, how ’bout a personal phone call, card, letter or email – as opposed to the blanket list-y stuff?

Only Another Person

Technology is a great tool. But it will never take the place of a living, breathing human being. Because you can’t have a “relationship” with an electronic gadget. Only another person can offer that.

Dr. George’s words still ring true. I have no idea what the answer to question #10 was on my final exam for his class.  But some thirty years down the road, I’m still in touch with many with whom I once shared a college campus.  Shared experiences can become shared lives. And sometimes shared lives become lifetimes, lasting far beyond – and meaning much more – than final exams and a tassel toss.


Cake 2If you’re looking to connect with other writers and do a little cross-promotion, check out my Author Avalanche! page. It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s FREE.