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Maria’s Side of the Story; Drawing the line between free speech and discrimination

by Maria Pansulla

We draw lines to separate the two sides of the street so that cars from opposing sides of traffic don’t crash into each other. There are lines that we verbally declare and figuratively create; times when we argue with people and  “cross the line,” but clearly, there isn’t a line that we can visibly see. There are lines that we draw in math class—theoretically, straight lines—but in the real world, not all lines are straight.

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Our right to freedom of speech includes expressing comments and opinions that are both positive and negative; but in the case of prejudiced and discriminatory comments, where should we draw the line?

The border that separates the protection of free speech from the protection of others against discrimination and hateful remarks seems to be increasingly vanishing as our ability to publicize opinions is becoming broader.

The suppression of speech, with the intention of protecting a group of people, is an idea that has been applied to situations as complex as creating a buffer zone to separate abortion-rights protesters from a health clinic in Massachusetts, to issues that can be more easily regulated and  straightforward, like saying the f-word on the public radio.

The right to freedom of speech protects our right to openly disagree, to verbally dislike policies and people.  But the line should be drawn boldly when it comes to publicizing ignorant slurs directed toward race, gender, or sexuality.

People have the right to speak their minds, but that doesn’t mean everything is always right to say, and that doesn’t mean anything can be said without repercussions.

There are hateful comments in politics, legitimate oppositions and disagreements that can be considered offensive to the person or people they’re directed at. And logically, there should be consequences when publicly offensive, ignorant generalizations are made. But how can there be consequences when these comments are lost in cyberspace in an updated stream of tweets?

There should be no restrictions on our rights to freedom of speech, but rather an understanding that our rights are coupled with responsibilities. As we idolize this freedom, we feel entitled to ostensibly say whatever we want (and on the Internet, wherever we want). Just because we have the right to say it doesn’t mean that we should, especially if it’s callously offensive and discriminatory.

With this freedom comes a greater responsibility. It’s not about what we can or can’t say, it’s what we do say and how it impacts the people around us, or in the case of the Internet, the indeterminate number of people who see what we put online. But whether no one sees it or it has made it’s way into a news article, there should be an awareness that what we say has weight to it, and some things just shouldn’t be conveyed publicly or even said at all.

People are going to be offended by what other people say; not everyone can sugarcoat their comments or shield their negativity. It’s inevitable that people will be offended by others’ opinions. But when these opinions target a group of people and are publicized on the Internet, then clearly there needs to be an ethical boundary. When  people completely segregated from the issue are offended, this is where the line should be drawn.

There are no two clear sides in this issue. There is no black and white. There are no dashed yellow lines protecting people from crashing into each other. But while there may not be a visible line protecting victims from hateful comments, there is a moral line; and it is in everyone’s best interest to learn where to draw it.

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