Freedom of Expression: What Can We Actually Say?

Last week in class our discussion began to center around the idea of the responsibility of public figures, if any, to be politically correct and respectful when in the public eye. The discussion focused on what should these individuals be allowed” to say; is there anything that they should absolutely not say? This topic came about as a result of some reflections within the class of a guest lecture visit to SUNY Oneonta from Spokane tribe member and author Sherman Alexi. Some felt that Alexi made some insensitive comments during his lecture. Others felt that although he was edgy, he was within his rights to say what he wanted.
I was torn about this issue initially, whether or not public figures should be more careful about what they say in public settings. I then remembered a John Stuart Mill quote “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”1 The first amendment is there to protect our liberty to express our ideas and feelings however, when it becomes harmful to others, should those in the spotlight edit their thoughts?
After listening to many ideas from my classmates and professor, I have decided that the first amendment should cover everyone within reason, including those with a public voice. Artists are meant to provoke the public. Whether that is in the form of a work of art, a novel, a song etc. Artists force their audiences to examine their own biases and beliefs. The burden then centers on us as the audience. If we feel uncomfortable or upset by the things we hear, then we must reflect on why that is. We must examine our own beliefs and find strength within that. We must determine what we can do personally in our own lives to foster understanding and acceptance others, and to feel comfortable expressing our own beliefs.

1. John Stuart Mill. On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green, 1869; Bartleby.com, 1999. http://www.bartleby.com/130/.

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