Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 29, 2021

Freedom of speech and expression

May 5, 2011

This Tuesday, pro-life activists protested on North Charles Street at 34th street. They carried posters with graphic signs of aborted fetuses and lynched persons. Other signs contained comparisons between abortion and genocide, which many people considered to be offensive. Many passersby were disturbed by and angry at the signs used by the protesters, and some were angry at the mere fact that pro-life protesters were near campus. Though aware of the activists’ right to protest, many students admonished the behavior of the activists.

The News-Letter not only appreciates the presence of the protesters, but also believes that the protesters were well within their rights to bring posters with them. This is not to say that this newspaper supports the message of pro-life activists. Instead, it supports the presence of opposing viewpoints as they challenge the status quo.

It is useful to frame a discussion about protest and speech through three key principles of liberal democracies: liberty, freedom of speech and minority protections. These principles frame the foundation of this country. More importantly, these principles are central to an individual’s relationship with society and the state.

In order for a person to feel free, she must feel like she can express herself. Liberty can exist only when the freedom of public expression is possible. Many people thought that the protesters should have moderated their displays because they were in the public eye. They claim that the protesters should have left their signs at home. This view is an affront to liberty. Would these people also be opposed to marches in Ukraine where people held up signs with grisly images of people hurt by the government’s use of chemical weapons? This newspaper thinks not. It is easier to accept the latter case because most people at Hopkins agree with the object of the Ukrainian protesters, whereas they disagree with pro-lifers. Even if one thought that the Ukrainian protesters were wrong, would it be acceptable to restrict their ability to protest? Again, the answer is no. Liberty is at the center of a person’s existence. Sometimes the exercise of one’s liberty is offensive, sometimes it is annoying and sometimes it is a disturbance, but these are not reasons to restrain it.

Freedom of speech is important ontologically. Free speech is a check on the government. It is the transmission of one’s thoughts to another. It is the freedom that galvanizes a people’s interaction with itself. Protecting speech is only important when the speech in question is at risk of being taken away. To that end, the speech most worth protecting is the speech that people disagree with the most. The pro-lifers’ speech was important because people disagreed with it. They challenged students’ sensibilities and they created a dialogue. People’s correct views can be reaffirmed and their incorrect views changed, but only if they are challenged first.

To that end, it is always useful to have contrary viewpoints. Monday’s protesters successfully reopened the conversation about reproductive rights and the rights of fetuses. Many people stopped to talk to the protesters. They argued with the protesters and vice versa. Some students created their own signs which promoted the pro-choice message. The existence of these two contradicting viewpoints in the same locale created a dialogue for students and Charles Village.

This, in itself, is worthwhile and Hopkins is better off for it. The trouble is that many people wanted to dictate the terms under which the protesters could protest, such as the exclusion of graphic photos. Such a view fails to realize the merits of free speech. Free speech should be just that: free. There should not be preconditions to a dialogue or limitations on expression when discussing political and social issues.

In America, the majority of people are protected by democracy. This does not mean that the majority may want to only impose its views on everyone. There are certain rights which are inalienable and guaranteed to all persons, including minorities. America was at its worst when the majority imposed its will without regard to the minority.

The examples of this are numerous: slavery, Japanese internment, Chinese exclusionary laws, Jim Crow laws, sodomy laws and prohibitions on interracial marriage. The majority overwhelmingly supported the inception and enforcement of each of these examples. None of those majorities thought that they were doing the wrong thing. Instead, they were willing to justify rights infringements because the groups they were restricting were “crazy, dangerous and a nuisance.” Though it is tempting to marginalize this group of pro-life protesters, it is especially important to protect them since they are a minority.

People should take a stand for what they believe in. They should protest and challenge authority. In response, people of opposing viewpoints should engage the protesters on the issues. This is exactly what happened last Tuesday, which shows that the Hopkins community can embrace opposing viewpoints, engage them and stand up for itself. The students who began dialogue with and protested the pro-lifers did just this.

Regardless of one’s opinion on abortion, the fact that activists came out to express themselves is to be commended. The pro-lifers may have offended some people and annoyed others. This is not reason enough to crowd them out or to ask them to limit their expression. These protesters are not a challenge to be overcome. Instead, they are a testament to the virtues of peaceful expression.

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