Respecting Free Speech: The Last Hope for Civility

By Jaclyn Munson

There’s a mailbox tagged on the corner of a street in my neighborhood. It says, “Ask yourself- what does justice mean to me?”

If there’s one thing I love about New York, it’s that people write on things. Walls, buildings, mailboxes, street signs, whatever. While I’d never encourage anyone to deface property, public or otherwise, there’s something to be said about making public declarations and not sticking around to see or hear the response. I imagine the author who tagged the mailbox on Convent Avenue thought enough of the question to let us answer it without their presence, leaving us to silently reflect on our subjective definitions of justice, the beacon of which exists on the plane of objectivity in a society driven by a collection of our individual and often conflicting experiences.

I read this question today, the same day that twelve Charlie Hebdo employees, including famed cartoonists and journalists, were killed by three masked gunman donned in black and wielding Kalashnikovs. It was an act of cowardice.

I read this question today, the same day that Phylicia Rashad, who played the beloved Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, was reported as encouraging us to “forget these women,” speaking of those accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault. Bye, Phylicia.

I read this question today, the same day that the FBI announced it was investigating an explosion outside the NAACP offices in Colorado as possibly linked to domestic terrorism.  It too was an act of cowardice.

So, what does justice mean to me?

Justice means preserving our right to speak without the threat of violence or erasure. It means dignifying the ways in which people choose to provide social commentary or advance social justice by allowing people do those things, unfettered. It is entirely possible to disagree with any number of people about their ideas without inciting violence to quell aversion to their ideology. In other words, you can’t kill or silence people because you don’t like what you say.

Today, free speech was violated when *satirists, writers, cartoonists and journalists were killed. It was violated at the suggestion that sexual assault victims be silenced in the name of maintaining loyalty to the patriarch of a classic TV family, because apparently nostalgia is worth more than justice. Free speech was also violated when the safety of an institution committed to preserving and advancing racial equality was endangered.

The less time we spend answering free speech with our fists, the more time we have to listen. The more we listen, the more we can learn about one another. The more we learn, the more we’ll see that we aren’t that different after all. What differences divide us, if responsibly resolved, can bring us together over time.

I know what justice means to me. But what does it mean to you?

*We desperately need satire as a source of social commentary. We must often laugh to keep from crying.


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