The high price of free speech

I often hear people say “I have the right to free speech; I can say whatever I want,” as an excuse for making offensive remarks or expressing controversial opinions. Shackled to this idea of “free speech” is the notion that whatever we say should be consequence free because we have the right to have and express our own opinions.

My experience has taught me that this attitude can unfortunately lead to many unintended consequences. For each right we exercise, also comes responsibility. For example, while I can say whatever I want, if I lie or abuse someone verbally I cannot claim “free speech” as a defense against the inevitable consequences.

One of the first things I learned upon enlisting in the Air Force was that my constitutional right to free speech had become severely limited. As a member of the armed forces, anything I said was representative of the military. It is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for commissioned officers to use “contemptuous words” against the President. Enlisted members may be prosecuted for using words “to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, or conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.”

I soon learned that there were further consequences for exercising my right to free speech. Pissing off the wrong guy can make dangerous enemies, which could be counterproductive to all the good I was trying to accomplish by opening my mouth in the first place.

Once, I was disastrously misquoted while responding to another airman’s misguided concern that because a Korean dry cleaner messed up his laundry, another Korean dry cleaner in town would be just as bad. My response was, “It has nothing to do with being Korean. All the dry cleaners I went to in Chicago were Korean, and I never had a problem.” I soon found myself standing in my commander’s office, who furiously wanted to know why I would have the audacity to say something as racist as, “All dry cleaners in Chicago are run by Koreans.”

Just recently, I caused several people great distress because of another one of my infamously disastrous miscommunications. This time, while making a very frustrated plea with a friend to think of me as an ally and not an enemy, I texted her the words, “You do not want to make an enemy out of me.” These words were obviously interpreted as a threat, although that was the opposite of my intent which was to make peace. What resulted was a very confusing and humiliating exchange with the police, who were tipped off that I might be threatening a young woman.

The point of all this is not to debase myself or to make penance by parading my every faux pas and thoughtless utterance out in public. I hope that from my mistakes a few lessons may be learned about the heavy responsibility of free speech.

First, while many college students may bristle to the idea that their “free speech” can be restricted by an organization to which they belong, it is important to understand that everything you say reflects upon that organization. In the real world, any company or club may disown you if you say something they do not like or it comes to reflect poorly upon them.

Second, just because you feel you should say something does not mean it will have the desired results. While what you say may be true, valid, and necessary – how, when, and even who says it can be very important. You may find that your words can have the unintended consequence of hurting people you didn’t want to hurt, or making enemies you didn’t want to make.

Third, if your words are misinterpreted, no matter whose fault it is, you are probably going to pay the higher price. It is in your best interest to take ownership of all misinterpretations and exercise extreme care to avoid them.

Finally, please remember, there is no such thing as a “private” conversation. Try to avoid saying anything in private that you would not like heard in public. Chances are, the more damaging your private conversations could be, the more likely they are to come out.

In conclusion, I leave you with the words of Solomon, from Proverbs 17:28. I would have been spared much heartache had I put this wisdom into practice more often:

“Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”

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