Sometimes offending someone is the best way to communicate with them. As I wrote several weeks ago, being “nice” often means not saying what you really mean. And that’s a problem in a country with a government that is of, for, and by the people. How can we govern ourselves if we aren’t free to say what we really think, even when others don’t like it?
Just to reiterate, I’m not talking about being polite, considerate, and thoughtful. Sometimes the point you are making is something others don’t want to hear, and they will still be offended no matter how polite you are.
For example, an African-American man in Philadelphia recently spoke out against the tragedy of black on black violence. He chose to make his point by standing on a street corner, and holding a sign observing the Ku Klux Klan killed 3,446 Blacks over an 86 year period, but in just the year of 2011 alone, over 7,000 black folks were killed by other blacks. Using the Klan to make his point is offensive enough, but Mr. King took the additional step of actually donning a Klansman hood and robe to really get people’s attention.
There’s no indication that Mr. King was ever impolite or disrespectful, but people were clearly offended. One City Councilman, Curtis Jones, Jr. said the use of Klan imagery made him angry. But he also said he couldn’t ignore Mr. King’s message and supports him anyway. In other words, Mr. King’s speech strategy appears to be working – even though it is offensive.
Back in 1949 in the Terminiello case, the Supreme Court explained why speech like Mr. King’s is so important, and guarded so closely by our Constitution:
The right to speak freely and to promote diversity of ideas and programs is therefore one of the chief distinctions that sets us apart from totalitarian regimes. Accordingly a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.
And as I indicated in my previous post, we need to be teaching our students about this important aspect of freedom of expression. But the requests for help we at Alliance Defending Freedom receive from students every week indicate that schools and universities are doing just the opposite. They not only teach kids that it’s always wrong to say something to which a classmate might take offense, but they actually punish students when they have the temerity to do so. In fact, we are working on a case now where a school bans any speech it deems “offensive.”
Mr. King’s teachers and school administrators must not have fallen into this trap. He is to be commended for speaking up even though some were offended and even stirred to anger. And I congratulate Councilman Jones for supporting him, even though he was one of those that took offense. Hopefully, our students are watching these men, and learning an important civics lesson from them. Our future depends on protecting offensive speech.