Free speech has long been considered a fundamental right for many citizens across the globe.
Recently, though, there has been a concerning trend popping up all over our country and spreading across the globe: the conflating of the protection of free speech with thinly veiled bigotry.
Students may have noticed trucks around campus in the past several weeks emblazoned with a large image of Adolf Hitler, reading “all in favor of banning Jews, raise your right hand.”
Though the group behind the trucks, Accuracy in Media, or AIM, claims to be advocating for Jewish people in and around Berkeley, the truck disturbed many students and community members in its depiction of Hitler and cryptic messaging that could easily be interpreted as antisemitic. This is just one example of free speech gone awry; go on your Twitter feed and you’ll see hundreds of other people doing the same.
Often, and especially online, people are all too willing to use slurs, offensive language or rhetoric to punch down and bully those around them. When called out for their behavior, they don’t take accountability, instead using free speech as a shield. Why would they apologize or change when it’s their right to say whatever they want, whenever they want?
To be extremely, explicitly clear, our board is not advocating for less freedom of speech. What we would like to see, however, is people thinking critically about how they use their power of freedom of speech and its potential impacts. Something like the AIM truck, which carelessly represents a figurehead of a horrific genocide as a political prop, is an unacceptable use of free speech. Regardless of the intention and right to voice opinion, having such an ambiguously worded truck to incite political debate is harmful, not only to Jewish students, as in this case, but also in its potential misconstruction as support for Nazi ideology.
With great power should always come great responsibility — and free speech merits even greater responsibility than other situations in our digital age, where reaching hundreds of people with the click of a button is effortless.
People have the ability to use a slur, or to paint Hitler on the side of a bus, but that does not mean that those actions won’t affect other people. Those on the receiving end of your right to free speech may be incredibly damaged by what you have to say, even if it wasn’t a big deal for you. Inflammatory speech, too, can be dangerous — just look at how YouTube commentary channels can lead young people down the alt-right-wing pipeline for proof of that. You, too, can be hurt by your own carelessness, whether past Tweets come back to haunt you in a job interview, or you watch your incendiary message be misinterpreted and spread around the internet.
Free speech is, as we said earlier, something that needs to be protected and well fortified. But it’s not just up to policy to decide how free speech operates; it’s up to each of us. Whether you are a student or a community member of Berkeley, we urge you to think about how your actions impact others, and to use your power of free speech to call out injustices and inequalities, not perpetuate them.