Sticks and Stones

September 21, 2017

by Dan Ward

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

When and why did that rhyme I learned as a child warp into “sticks and stones should break the bones of those whose words might hurt me?”

A new study by The Brookings Institution shows that of 1,500 college students surveyed nationwide, an astounding 19 percent believe that violence – physical violence – is an appropriate response to prevent a controversial speaker from speaking.  Let that sink in.  One in five attending college in a country that is in many ways defined by its protection of speech believe that mere words should be met, and stopped, with violence.

A majority believe it is appropriate to stop hateful speech by shouting it down so the speaker cannot be heard, and a plurality believe that hate speech is NOT protected by the First Amendment.

How did we reach a point at which young people believe the response to speech with which they disagree is to force it to stop, with violence if necessary?

One of the things taught to me as a child, and reinforced in college, was that First Amendment protections are not extended only to those with “acceptable” viewpoints, but more importantly to those with whom we strongly disagree.

I realize times have changed and we live in a charged political environment, but I remember the conversations I had with friends and family as a young man, conversations in which we discussed the need to protect hateful speech, because doing so defines who we are and what makes us different.  Our willingness to tolerate hateful, horrible words is what sets us apart.  I can only hope we find our way back to having those kinds of conversations.

As communicators, it is our job to protect and preserve First Amendment rights, and to ensure that the next generation understands these rights. As a father, I want my children to be confronted with ideas and language they find disagreeable and even hurtful.  I want them to seek out this language.  And I want them to respond not with violence or shouts, but with better arguments.

The way to confront hateful speech is not sticks and stones.  We can only defeat hateful speech with reason, with conversation, with more speech.

The Antidote to Hateful Speech is More Speech

February 3, 2017

by Dan Ward

When I first read about the violent protests at UC Berkeley over a planned speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, I was prepared to respond from the viewpoint of the middle-aged curmudgeon I’ve become.

I started a post about free speech coming full circle, with the birthplace of “the Free Speech Movement” now serving as a location for protests against speech.  Why is it, I was about to write, that young people today (“those darn kids”) seem less interested in protecting free speech than being protected from it?

But then my hope was restored by a Berkeley freshman, Shivam Patel, who was quoted at the end of this CNN story about the protest.

“It’s a sad irony in the fact that the Free Speech Movement was founded here and tonight, someone’s free speech got shut down.  It might have been hateful speech, but it’s still his right to speak.

Thank you, Shivam, for recognizing that the First Amendment protects even speech that makes us uncomfortable.


February 9, 2016

by Dan Ward

I’ve long been a Jeb Bush fan, but his latest comments about campaign finance may just be the “Jump the Shark” moment in his presidential campaign.

My two cents:  Jeb! is just plain Wrong! when it comes to Citizens United, which he vowed on Monday to “eliminate.”

It’s not a popular opinion, but I still stand by what I wrote on these pages six years ago in responding to criticism of the Citizens United decision: “deal with it … the freedom of speech is meant to be expansive, not restrictive.”

I’m no happier about the role of big money in campaigns than the next voter.  But infringing upon First Amendment rights is not the answer. Citizens was an unpopular decision, but it was in keeping with our Constitution.

Given the money Jeb’s #RightToRise PAC has raised, his comments raise some interesting questions.  If the floodgates have opened for “Big Money” to influence campaigns, why is Jeb stuck at 3 percent in the polls?  And why is a Democratic Socialist senator with millions of small-money donors running neck-and-neck with a candidate backed by the greatest political fundraising machine in the country?

Convenient or not, our First Amendment guarantees the #RightToSpeak.

What’s Said in Vegas …

January 26, 2015

by Dan Ward

Kudos to the Las Vegas Review-Journal for making the courageous decision to shut down its comment boards, albeit “temporarily.”

As we’ve mentioned on this blog before, comment boards are the “sewer of the Internet,” often allowing the worst of humanity to post vitriol while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.  While it would be nice to assume newspaper readers would use comment boards to engage in civic debate about important issues, those boards are too often hijacked by racist, misogynistic Neanderthals who are anything but civil.

The Review-Journal rightly points out that “nowhere does the First Amendment require the media to provide a platform for your speech.”

My guess is that this particular platform will not be missed.

Is a Donation Speech?

April 2, 2014

by Dan Ward

I expect today’s Supreme Court decision striking limits on individual donations to political campaigns will draw a lot of attention.

Any decision regarding campaign finance in today’s hyper-partisan political environment leads the networks and blogs into a state of frenzy (Will it take Flight 370 off the CNN home page?  Here’s hoping.).

The decision holds that “Congress may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”

My take?  I support the decision.  Limiting the influence of big-money donors may be a laudable goal, but not if it abridges the rights afforded to citizens under the First Amendment.

As Chief Justice Roberts writes in his opinion, “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.  If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades – despite the profound offense such spectacles cause – it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

I’m in the business of helping people and companies express themselves, so it’s no surprise I support free speech rights.  If a cause is important and people need help communicating their message, they shouldn’t be limited in what they can spend to seek counsel.  We deal in the court of public opinion, but imagine if the same thinking that leads to limits in campaign spending were applied to the court of law … should big-money defendants not be allowed to spend unlimited amounts on their defense?

Some believe the public interest of limiting the influence of big-money donors outweighs the First Amendment concerns.  Others may question whether this is even a First Amendment issue (Is a donation “speech?”).

What’s your opinion?  Do you agree with the majority or with the dissenters who hold that “today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws?”

Censorship is a Good Thing

August 11, 2010

By John Marini

As a strong supporter of Americans’ First Amendment right to free speech, I must confess that I am also a big proponent of censorship. In fact, I practice it every day.

Before you think I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, let me explain. I have never written to the school board asking them to take a book out of the classroom, although I wish math books were banned when I was growing up. What I mean is being selective with words, which I believe are very powerful.

As the father of two young children, I exercise censorship while reading to my children. Not only in the books I choose, but in the way I read them. Occasionally, I will come across a word that is no longer used in today’s vernacular, at least not in the same context, like the word queer. It’s used often in the wonderful book “The Boxcar Children,” which was written in 1942. When I first came across it, I told my 7-year-old son the meaning of the word and then every time I came across it again I substituted the word strange – partly because the word queer is now a slang reference to being gay (which is another word that doesn’t mean what it once did), and partly because it’s seldom used in today’s vocabulary.

I may also see a word I don’t want my children saying, like the word stupid. I happen to think it’s a particularly strong, derogatory word; I don’t say around my kids and I don’t want to hear coming from their mouths. When I recently came across it reading to my 4-year-old daughter, I automatically changed it to silly.

As a communications professional at Curley & Pynn, I have to choose the words I use very carefully because they can have a big impact on how a client is perceived. That’s why I employ self-censorship in what I write on a daily basis. Chances are you do too.

Think of this post the next time you hear of someone accused of censorship. While the First Amendment protects your right to say they are stupid or their thinking is queer, it may not be true.

The Power of Free – Part II

January 29, 2010

by Dan Ward

Roger Pynn wrote about the Power of Free … how the word “free” is a strong driver of consumer action.

I want to write about the power of Free from another angle … our rights, as individuals and as businesses or associations, to Free Speech.

The Jan. 21 Supreme Court decision striking down portions of the McCain-Feingold Act has been roundly criticized, because it will open the door to increased spending by corporations on political campaigns.

My response?  Deal with it.

The First Amendment is not meant to be convenient.  At times it can be annoying, unpopular, and even disturbing.  But it lays out essential freedoms that help to define who we are as a country.

Many pundits, media organizations and legislators are claiming that businesses do not and should not have the same rights to free speech as ordinary citizens.  I’m not buying it.

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

That is not followed by “*this freedom applies only to individuals, and not to businesses, associations, unions or clubs.”  The framers were sparse with their words for a reason.  The freedom of speech is meant to be expansive, not restrictive.

Some are saying that the increased power of corporations to use their wallets to gain air time will drown out the voices of ordinary citizens.  But we as citizens have a powerful right unavailable to any corporation. 

We have the right to a vote … and when we take the time to learn about issues and candidates rather than basing our decisions solely on ad buys and sound bites, nothing speaks louder.

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