The first amendment has been around for 232 years. But it seems now, more than ever, first amendment freedoms are under attack. And indeed experts say attacks on free speech are rising across the U.S. Bans on books and drag performances are growing increasingly common nationwide.
Spotify faced growing controversy over episodes of Joe Rogan's podcast containing racial slurs and COVID-19 misinformation.
A fierce free speech debate last year gained national attention at Hamline University when a professor's contract was not renewed after she showed artwork of the prophet Muhammad in her World Art class, in spite of issuing trigger warnings.
Today the first of four regional symposiums kicks off in St. Paul, with some of the proceedings at Hamline University, to try and better understand Free Speech and First Amendment issues.
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“Free Speech at the Crossroads: A Minnesota Dialogue” is put on by the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, in collaboration with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The director of the Free Speech Project and former co-host of “All Things Considered” on NPR, Sandy Ungar, and Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the Hubbard School of Journalism at the University of Minnesota and panelist at the conference joined MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.
Well, today, the first of four regional symposiums kicks off in Saint Paul with some of the proceedings to be at Hamline University to try and better understand free speech and First Amendment issues. Free Speech at the Crossroads, A Minnesota Dialogue, is put on by the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, in collaboration with the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation. Joining us right now is the director of the Free Speech Project and former co-host of All Things Considered on MPR, Sandy Ungar, and Jane Kirtley, a professor of Media Ethics and Law at the Hubbard School of Journalism at the University of Minnesota. Professor Kirtley is a panelist at the conference. Welcome to both of you.
JANE KIRTLEY: Thank you.
SANDY UNGAR: Thank you very much, Cathy.
CATHY WURZER: Sandy, I'm going to start with you. Folks on both the left and the right seem to be coming at free speech from different angles with different grievances. And given that, do you think there's been a general loss of faith in the First Amendment?
SANDY UNGAR: Oh, I think this First Amendment is lying on the road and twitching. There have been attacks on free speech across the political spectrum. When we started trying to document this about six years ago, the conservative side of the spectrum insisted that their speech was the only speech under attack.
And now, after documenting more than 850 incidents, we know that it is really across the political spectrum, big cities, small towns, every region of the country. And there's a great deal of consciousness that needs to be raised that this is picking up momentum, and it could have some very serious additional risks for American democracy.
CATHY WURZER: Professor Kirtley, you know I've talked about this in the past. Do you think there's a free speech crisis in this country?
JANE KIRTLEY: I'm not going to call it a crisis, and I will tell you why. I think that the kinds of things Sandy's talking about show us how much the public really cares about freedom of speech. The problem is that for many people, it's as Nat Hentoff once wrote, it's free speech for me, but not for thee. Very robust desire to be able to express the views we agree with, a concomitant desire to stifle the views we don't. I don't see that as necessarily problematic because I think we're seeing the public more engaged in this debate than certainly I've seen in the last 25 years. So I remain optimistic.
CATHY WURZER: OK, so as you're saying, recent restrictions, you think, have more to do with things that make some folks uncomfortable.
JANE KIRTLEY: Exactly. I think there is this fear, partly through newer technology and the pervasiveness of websites, other things that people feel are invading their space, invading their turf, poisoning their children's minds. I think there's a desire to play whack-a-mole and make it go away. Of course, they can't make it go away, thanks to the First Amendment. We must figure out a way to engage and I think discuss these issues so that everybody can understand that we may not agree with things that our neighbors have to say, but they have a right to express them and we should engage in debate with them.
CATHY WURZER: Sandy, as you mentioned, this is across the political spectrum here. Any coincidence that this new censorship culture arose with social networks like Facebook and Twitter?
SANDY UNGAR: Oh, I think that social media have contributed to the crisis and have thus far successfully resisted any kind of outside-- I don't even know if monitoring is the right word or regulation is the right word, but acknowledgment of the problem. You know, Jane and I don't disagree that much, really. I recognize a lot of people have legitimate things to worry about. But I don't agree that there's a growing consciousness that we have to make sure that other people have free speech rights, as well as ourselves, because the opposite of that seems to be developing all across the country.
And it's a side effect of political polarization or is exacerbated by political polarization, perhaps, but I think we need more attention to this problem as a national one. And that's one of the reasons the Knight Foundation funded us to do these regional symposia around the country. Saint Paul is the first of four. And we came here because the Knight Foundation has a regional office in Saint Paul and has been a presence in this community for a long time.
We have the next 2 and 1/2 days this afternoon and tomorrow and Wednesday and then Wednesday morning. We're going to explore many facets of the problem, all with local talent, by the way. Everybody, all of our panelists, all of the people in our sessions are from the Twin Cities. We have a moderator or two perhaps from outside. But I hope it will be a thorough exploration of the problem and that the discussion will continue after this is over.
CATHY WURZER: Really interesting that you're having it here. And I'm sure you're going to go talk about hateful rhetoric, which is also on the rise, versus there's different examples of that, anti-Semitism, white supremacy. But you both know that hate speech is generally protected by the First Amendment. My question, I guess, to Jane-- and I'm sure you'll be bringing this up in the symposium-- is, how can we ensure that we counter hate speech without compromising free speech?
JANE KIRTLEY: The cure for speech we don't like is more speech. And this is the thing I preach to my students because just last week, we were talking about hate speech. And I had to tell them, hate speech, most of it, as you said, is protected by the First Amendment. That's different from the rules in most other countries around the world, where it is often suppressed. But I remind them that today's hate speech might be, in the future, a point of view that somebody might want to embrace.
So the key is to listen to this, to not suppress ideas. If somebody is engaging in true threats, incitement to violence, that's different. That's not protected by the First Amendment. But to simply express negative ideas, that's the essence of what kind of debate we have to have. James Madison said that free speech is the guardrail of representative democracy. And we have to recognize that opposing viewpoints have to be heard.
CATHY WURZER: Sandy, do you want to make a comment about that?
SANDY UNGAR: Yeah, so I began this effort as a free speech purist, much as Jane is. But we have found many examples of hate speech that really have crossed a very dangerous line. And of course, it's present in our politics. It was present on the 6th of June a couple of years ago in Washington. And I think we need to take a somewhat more modern view with taking some of the lessons from the past, especially some things in Europe, but also things in this country.
So I think there needs to be much more consideration of just waiting to see what happens with hate speech. Just having more speech may not be good enough because a great deal of damage may have already been done while we're waiting around to experiment. So I think we need considerations of people's humanity, human dignity. The exceptions specified in Supreme Court decisions are really not very meaningful, practical.
Nobody shouts fire in a crowded theater. That, we all know, would be wrong. But we have to figure out other ways of communication that will discourage hate speech and have people consider very seriously the consequences of what they're saying.
CATHY WURZER: You know what? Before we go, I need to ask this question, and you brought up political polarization, Sandy, which is, you can't wave a magic wand and make that go away. I'm wondering, is there some sort of an effort in schools that we can start students young when it comes to some of these issues of free speech and the First Amendment to open their minds?
JANE KIRTLEY: It would be nice--
SANDY UNGAR: I think--
JANE KIRTLEY: --if they had some civics-- excuse me, Sandy. I'm just going to say it would be nice if they had some civics education coming along the way. That's gone by the wayside in many schools. And I think that leads students to elevate their sense of their own personal feelings and their own emotional reaction above the idea that bad ideas need to be erred. That's one of the ways that we can counteract them.
CATHY WURZER: Sandy?
SANDY UNGAR: Well, I agree with much of what Jane said, especially about the need for civics education for young children. But there was a recent case in Ohio-- and we have these from all over the country, but a homeschool network with fascist ideas and speaking of admiration for Hitler was allowed to just go on unchallenged in Ohio because it was hate speech protected by the First Amendment. I think that's an example of the absurdity of purism these days on these matters.
The damage being done by this homeschool network is incalculable. And no one appears to be willing to do anything about it. Just more speech. Well, more speech is not solving that problem. And there are many, many other examples, especially in small towns, rural areas, hidden from widespread media coverage and public view that have to be considered. This is not a simple problem.
CATHY WURZER: I wish I had more time with you both. This should be a fascinating symposium. Sandy Ungar, thank you for your time. Jane Kirtley, always a pleasure.
JANE KIRTLEY: Thank you.
SANDY UNGAR: Thank you, Cathy.
CATHY WURZER: Sandy Ungar is the director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University. Jane Kirtley, a professor of Media Ethics and Law at the Hubbard School of Journalism at the University of Minnesota. Both are taking part in the Free Speech at the Crossroads, a Minnesota dialogue symposium taking place today through Wednesday in Saint Paul.
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