The Pew Research Center released a report recently that is, to put it mildly, disconcerting to those of us who spend any time defending the First Amendment. According to the report, 40% of millennials (people age 18 – 34) believe that the government should be able to prevent people from making statements that are offensive to minority groups. This may be a factor in what seems to be a trend on universities to limit free expression, to avoid “intolerance.”
I’m going to give the poll respondents the benefit of the doubt and assume they misheard the question. I hope that’s the explanation anyway. Because if 40% of our future leaders really believe that response, I am worried about our future. Because the First Amendment exists precisely to protect offensive speech. We don’t need the First Amendment to protect our right to wish someone a happy birthday. We do need the First Amendment, however, to protect the right of civil rights activists to call out bigotry when they see it. No matter how “offensive” that may be to the ones labeled bigots. And yes, we need the First Amendment so the alleged bigots can defend themselves. No matter how offensive that speech is to the civil rights activists. “Offensive” is a slippery definition.
Which leads me to this piece. A Thailand citizen was recently brought up on charges for insulting the king’s dog. I’m serious. Thanakorn Siripaiboon apparently made a sarcastic Internet post about King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s dog, “Tongdaeng.” Thailand has strict laws against insulting the monarchy. Mr. Thanakorn has also been charges separately with sedition and insulting the king. He could face up to 37 years in prison.
Am I saying that prohibiting “offensive” speech at a public university will lead to laws outlawing criticism of the President or his dog? No. But I am saying that one reason I feel certain that will never happen is our robust First Amendment. But to the extent we chip away at it, in the name of prohibiting “offensive” speech, we get less certain that absurd results won’t follow. Millennials, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and all of us need to keep that in mind.
And the New York Times piece reminded me of a former President who was terribly upset over comments about his dog. But fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, FDR didn’t have anyone indicted.