I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I have developed an appreciation of morning talk radio. My drug of choice is the Adam Corolla Show, featuring an intelligent, humorous, and slightly irritated man making comments and observations about the state of our world. It harbors no pretenses of being a legitimate news outlet and this is frequently apparent in the nature of the show’s content. What it does do is make me think about how I live my life as both an individual and a member of humankind. And in the interest of pushing the envelope of what is acceptable, the topic of free speech inevitably comes up.
It emerged again following the statement made on the “Imus in the Morning” program about the Rutgers women’s basketball players. All of the standard power players responded, Al Sharpton, Oprah, the NAACP, and all made statements regarding how such an incident related to freedom of speech. Sharpton made the claim that the issue was never about Imus or his comments, it was about society choosing not to allow public airwaves to be used to support racist and misogynistic beliefs.
Most people and especially social critics and activists like Sharpton often miss the point when it comes to our right to free speech. As any student of deontology will tell you, your rights are indicative of my duties as a fellow human being. But if those duties are left undefined, as they are in our own Bill of Rights that protects free speech, we have effectively left the implementation of free speech open-ended.
We can hypothesize and review historical information, whereby many scholars hold the view that the right to free speech was meant to protect those that chose to speak out publicly against the government, thereby advancing the cause of a democratic republic that draws its power from the will of the people. On the other hand, based on the flavor of the day, Don Imus’s comments would not have been viewed as free speech. Attitudes and ideas about race and gender have changed, yet we have not formally updated the duties that accompany our protected rights.
A reasonable person can probably conclude that your right to free speech corresponds to a duty on my part to be tolerant of speech that I don’t personally agree with. One could also argue that a right to free speech includes with it a duty to refrain from hateful and inappropriate statements, especially those that are race or gender specific. One could even suggest that a right to free speech for citizens corresponds to a duty to respond with appropriate consequences when lines are crossed.
In a sense, that is what happened to Don Imus. While exercising his right to free speech, he failed to observe his duty to refrain from hate speech. Society at large, however, was successful in fulfilling its duty to impose consequences, but not in its duty to be tolerant of speech that we don’t agree with.
Which duty is more appropriate, and more importantly, who decides? What is hateful and unnecessary to some may be considered a statement of true, objective fact to someone else? How do we maintain a right to free speech without allowing people to simply say whatever they want to? It is a battle that may never have a winner, but the end result for Don Imus suggests to me that we are beginning to acknowledge the duties that our rights entail.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.