By CHELSEA JONES
It seems the First Amendment gets thrown around quite a bit today, between demonstrations for and against gay marriage, the Westboro Baptist Church and an increased attention to political correctness or a lack thereof. People tote even unpopular views for all to see, taking refuge under the solace of that little phrase, “freedom of speech.”
And the amendment makes sense, of course. We want conversation. We want open dialogues and impassioned discourse. In theory, how can I not support freedom of speech? As a writer (more specifically an Opinion writer), those three words let me say what I want to say, the things I sometimes feel need to be said. But when we shed light on the amendment’s darker side—the side that protects insulting or hateful speech—things become tricky. I’m a lot less apt to champion the Constitution when homophobic, racial and other slurs of the like make their way into the conversation. Thus after reading The Daily Princetonian’s “The night a preacher hit the Street,” I remain unsure who is right.
Now my gut says that Michael Stockwell, the preacher who shouted words of warning to students making their way to and from the Eating Clubs, shouldn’t be able to tell people that “drinking and fornication” are sinful and they should repent in order to be saved. I am a firm believer in letting people lead their lives as they so choose. I don’t mind differing opinions as long as views aren’t forced on another. The bottom line is that one’s personal beliefs shouldn’t dictate the life of someone else. I would like to go enjoy the Street without being told I am damned. If that be the case, let me make my mistakes.
On the other hand, Stockwell wasn’t forcing anyone to stand before him and listen. He wasn’t forcing anyone to believe in what he said. The main charge against him was the violation of the noise ordinance (as he was using an amplifier and microphone without a permit) – not excessive preaching.
Nevertheless, the case makes me uneasy. If it hadn’t been about religion, would the case be so heated? Or if he had been preaching a sentiment I agree with, would it bother me at all? I’m afraid the answer is “No.” And with that I feel like I have to fall on the side of the Constitution. I don’t like it, not at all, but I suppose to put the good words—the uplifting, the encouraging, the progressive—into the world then we must be willing to also allow the offensive or hurtful.
The detriment is that it becomes a battle of who can speak the loudest. My fear is that we will all end up shouting over one another and freedom of speech becomes freedom of an incoherent roar. Without open discussion and respectful conversation, we are left with only incompatible views that become white noise until nothing gets heard at all.