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Free Speech As It Is, As it Should Be

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” — Linus van Pelt

As a teacher, I often ponder what sort of advice to give students on the continuum from accepting the world as it is (and being appropriately cautious) to working to make it better. The current controversy over hooded sweatshirts and the death of Trayvon Martin brings this to mind. If you were teacher or parent to a young African American man, would you advise him to avoid hoodies (it’s not safe), or wear them proudly (it should be safe)?  Or get everyone to wear them, and start a new political movement?

I’m glad I don’t have to advise young African American men on clothing choices–I have no idea what I’d say.  But the more I think about it, the more this continuum–from the world as it is to the world as it should be–pervades life.  Where I do advise students is in the area of their self presentation and exercise of free speech online.

Viewing the world as it is, I caution students to be careful. Potential employers are increasingly checking up on job candidates online. People are being fired for exercising their free speech rights at home in their free time.  And how you feel about issues now may not be how you feel about them in the future, but your past statements will follow you.  Be careful. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you don’t want to jeopardize your position.

Viewing the world as it should be, I believe  in everyone’s right not just to controversial speech but to offensive speech.  How can our culture make any progress if we are all silent about issues that matter? Where is our tolerance for differing views? The internet is potentially the greatest tool ever invented in the service of democracy, so for goodness sakes let’s use it! 

I suppose I could create a pseudoymous persona to express political views separate from my real identity, but I shouldn’t have to. Statements have more weight when they come from a real person. I speak to you as a citizen of the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, the State of Georgia, and the United States of America. I vote, and this is what I think. 

I tend to err on the side of caution in giving advice to my students.  I’m much more likely to say, “the world is scary–be careful” than say “you can change the world–go for it!”  I suppose world changers at minimum need to understand the risks they take.  The research question I’d like to address is how we can re-engineer the system to reduce those risks, and make richer kinds of public political discourse possible, even for cautious souls like me.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 27, 2012 at 5:37 pm


    Many thanks for this post, it’s tackling one of the esential issues in the virtual world today.
    There is not a single day that I don’t think about risks, and the balance between accepting the world as it is, and up to which extent we are able to change it.

    I’m glad for your students having you as their teacher!

    Ricardo Curti
    Madrid, Spain, born in Argentina
    Deeply convinced abstentionist.

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