Two stories. Two similar scenarios. Two possible applications of freedom of speech.
In the first scenario, an acting duo produces a film entitled The Interview, a raunchy gross-out comedy trip through North Korea that includes a gratuitous orgy scene involving Kim Jong Un. The Film concludes with an assassination attempt on self-same head of state. When North Korea discovered the details of the plot of this film, as the FBI report details, they hacked into the Sony Films data cloud and and leaked sensitive executive documents as retribution. These hackers also claimed revenge and terrorism if Sony releases the film for national distribution.
The initial response by Sony was to delay the release. Later, Sony decides to cancel it all together. The public response, mostly by the artistic community, has been to cry foul and to lift up the ideal of free speech in America, especially when it comes to art.
In the second scenario, an undergraduate student in an ethics class at Marquette, a Jesuit university, asks his teacher, a graduate student, for clarification on some remarks she made in her lecture on ethical conversations about human sexuality. The teacher remarked that anyone taking a position against homosexuality as a viable option for human flourishing would be required to drop the class. The student pressed her as to the ethical reasons for such a narrow position. She glibly responded that the student did not have the right to hold to such a position.
When the student brought the matter to the attention of the faculty and administration (through some less than above board means), the administration responded with an open letter in support of the grad assistant/teacher. The public response, mostly by the religious community, has been to cry foul and to lift up the ideal of free speech in America, especially when it comes to religious liberty and ethics.
I find these two stories, situated one after the other in my twitter feed, to be interesting foils that highlight an important conversation about the extent of freedom of speech in America in the 21st century. Namely, should we limit free speech? Or, rather, should we limit the application of free speech in America? When a film portrays the assassination attempt at a global political leader is this to be understood as an appropriate application of free speech? Or is free speech then limited if it brings about negative consequences?
This would seem to be the case in the Marquette scenario. The student in question had the freedom to speak until his free comments offended the teacher. At that point, freedom of speech was no longer to be applied.
The big question rolling around in my brain today is this: Do we really believe in freedom of speech? Or, do we like the idea of free speech as long as no one is offended? Are we now a nation of people pleasers who aim to train the next generation of thinkers to become even more skilled and proficient people pleasers?
I don’t think we are. At least, I certainly hope not. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who warned against this same kind of madness from within the context of Nazi Germany:
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.