Schettler: Free speech, responsibility go hand-in-hand

Schettler: Free speech, responsibility go hand-in-hand

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.” The First Amendment. Forty five words that mean so much to so many Americans and even non-Americans who don’t enjoy such liberties.

I put great value into the freedom of speech, but it’s a right that in a lot of ways is under-valued. What responsibilities does a right carry? Sure, it’s not absolute – we all know we cannot “cry fire in a crowded theater.” Is there a responsibility to be civil with our words and think critically about our comments before we deliver them?

Scholars would likely argue that there’s always been a level of incivility in American society. With such an unfettered ability to express ourselves, it’s unavoidable. But I would argue that incivility is increasing, or the results of which are becoming more available for others to consume.

The Internet has provided people with a forum to express their grievances like none before it. With Twitter, Facebook and even news Web sites, the outlets are endless. And people are certainly taking advantage of them, but at what cost?

Last year one Facebook user created a poll asking if President Obama should be killed. In what context is that ever appropriate? I understand being frustrated with the President, but is that any reason to post such an item to Facebook?

An article in last Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer provided more examples. Columnist Dick Polman pointed out that when Rush Limbaugh was hospitalized in December, left-leaning comment boards lit up with posts like, “Garbage in, garbage out. Let him die,” and “Come on, 2009! Don’t fail me now!”

Limbaugh fell victim to the very incivility he himself engages in. Once people discovered that incivility sells, it became a commodity. Fox News and MSNBC are prime examples. Are Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann sincere in all the rhetoric they spits out each night? It doesn’t matter, because his millions of viewers are bringing in millions of dollars, dozens of book deals, speaking requests and whatever else.

Unfortunately, people are learning that incivility is also rewarded. Obama said once that often times the “loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention,” and he’s absolutely right. Take a look at the Birther movement from last summer or Sarah Palin’s comments about death panels.

So how do we fight back against this increasingly alarming trend? At Simpson College, a significant role of our liberal arts education is to teach us to think critically. That’s significant because most of the rhetoric being spewed haphazardly hasn’t been thought through at all.

Susan Herbst, chief academic officer for the University System of Georgia, addressed the issue in an article for Inside Higher Ed. Herbst makes the case for teaching students how to properly form arguments and debate one another civilly.

She argues that it’s up to educators to shape the coming generations into responsible citizens. She goes so far as to suggest that schools make a debate course mandatory, as they would a public speaking course.

I certainly hope it’s something that Simpson considers as the school moves through the development of the new curriculum, because incivility is just as present here as it is everywhere else.

I have lost count of the number of Facebook statuses I’ve seen about health care this or “Osamabama” that. After Republican Scott Brown won the race for Ted Kennedy’s senate seat last month, my news feed went crazy with comments about how great it was, how terrible it was, how America may survive after all, or maybe we just care more about our beach homes than those living on the street.

I’m all for people speaking their minds. I think it’s an essential part of a democracy. And it’s important to fuel debate, but it shouldn’t be fueled by talking points we learn from extremist pundits whose top goal is to make money, not actually educate to public with worthwhile information.

I’ll admit that at times I’ve been incivil. I’ve probably created more than one of those Facebook statuses myself. But I know it’s not actually accomplishing anything, so why contribute to the wasteland of propaganda?

So here’s a challenge. Do your research. If you’re going to comment on something, think about it before you say it. The civility has to start somewhere. Maybe there will be hope for some civil discourse in the future.