Opinion | Paul Olson: You certainly have strong opinions

I take worrying and wording seriously, so I proofread my essays many times before submitting them. Still, I feel a stab of anxiety as I hit “Send” to get it to the Summit Daily. Though I wouldn’t wish my nervousness on anyone, the world would be a little nicer place if some people would be more hesitant and prudent before posting their opinions and videos online.

For example, a student at the University of Wisconsin posted a video of herself on social media a few weeks ago in which she recorded a rant about her hatred of African-Americans. This resulted in student marches and a petition signed by 55,000 people calling for her expulsion. The university condemned the video as not reflecting the school’s values but rightly declined to expel her as the student has the constitutional right to free expression.

The offending student may just be a foolish young person who doesn’t even understand the hurt her words cause. The protesting students may be best off ignoring this attention-seeking student and focus on encouraging the university and other students to respect everyone and support equal rights for all. Perhaps they could even feel sympathy for this angry woman who lost the opportunity to ever be elected homecoming queen.

There has been a bad trend during the past two decades for students to try to censure campus speakers whose views may offend some people. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression lists 553 attempts, many successful, to disinvite campus speakers from 1998 through 2023. Protesting students end up giving these speakers more publicity than they would otherwise receive. Colleges should encourage students to be resilient and acquire an appreciation for diverse viewpoints instead of shielding them from real world adversity.

Hate speech is protected free speech unless it threatens someone with imminent harm or is defamatory. Other nations have chosen to restrict hate speech, but such laws often backfire and end up restricting any discussion of the issue no matter what the viewpoint. The better way to counter hate speech is with more speech, rational speech, more persuasive speech. Bring bigoted views out in the open for public discussion.

The freedom to express one’s views is an essential ingredient of democracy and protecting the rights of minorities. Consider how important it was during the Civil Rights Movement for protesters to peacefully march and to express their views to the media. During the Jim Crow era, many cities and states tried to silence speech and protest by making arrests for disturbing the peace in order to intimidate protesters. All citizens must be able to object when they are harmed by unjust laws, not given equal rights or being denied the right to vote.

The internet and social media have given cover to many with strong opinions to say things online they would never dream of saying at the coffee shop or at a town meeting. Whether they are cowards, closet Nazis or aspiring Senators, they have a right to their opinions and even their false information. It is up to us to be rational, informed citizens and know the difference between truth and lies and what is good for our nation and what is not.

The control of the White House, Congress and statehouses are often decided by a narrow margin on Election Day. Freedom to express dissent must be a timeless principle and not restricted by the party which happens to be in power at a given moment. We cannot have the nation’s “correct view” on important issues suddenly be dictated by the whims of government officials. Suppressing free speech has been a common method for authoritarian nations to crush dissent. We should resist efforts by politicians to force conformity in how we think and express ourselves. Voicing unpopular opinions helps keep the government in check and can lead to discussions on ways to improve how government functions.

Freedom of speech and expression is not a privilege due to the good fortune of being rich, influential or a white male but is a natural human right shared by everyone in our nation and is protected by the Constitution. How fortunate that you have the right to give your opinion on government policy or anything else in the local newspaper, on social media or at city hall. Hopefully people will use this freedom wisely to achieve greater harmony within our nation.

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