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Microaggressions and Megaphones: Challenges to Free Speech in the 21st Century

On Writing

Microaggressions and Megaphones: Challenges to Free Speech in the 21st Century

Stephen H. Provost

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." - Evelyn Beatrice Hall in "The Friends of Voltaire" (1906)
"Congress shall make no law ... abridging freedom of speech, or of the press." - First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified 1791)

All seems pretty cut and dried, right?

But we sometimes forget how much has changed since these words were written. "Freedom of the press" to the Founding Fathers meant the right to publish and distribute political treatises like Thomas Paine's Common Sense or early newspapers such as the Connecticut Courant.

At the time the First Amendment was being formulated, only about 100 newspapers were being published in the United States. Even with a decline in daily newspaper publication over the past quarter-century, the figure as of 2014 stood at more than 1,300.

Public libraries, another form of disseminating written work, weren't commonplace until Andrew Carnegie's building binge of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Communication has gotten complicated - not just written communication, but spoken communication and even implied communication. "Censorship" and "political correctness" have become buzzword weapons in a war of words on social media, college campuses, talk radio and cable TV. None of these modes of communication was envisioned by Voltaire or Benjamin Franklin.

When newspapers were the only game in town, one could always write a letter to the editor, but it might or might not be published, and even then, only after a delay of several days or even weeks. Failing that, you could go out on a street corner and rant against whatever the paper had published. Or you could sit on your hands. There weren't many other options.

These days, responses are immediate. A tweet can go viral in a matter of minutes and spur hundreds or thousands of retweets and responses. Interviews with newsmakers and wannabe newsmakers are witnessed live on CNN, Fox or other TV outlets. People get defensive on both sides, tempers escalate quickly, and all the rhetoric winds up - ironically - impeding communication.

(Similarly, the proliferation of more sophisticated weapons has made interpreting the Second Amendment more challenging, practically speaking, than it was in the era of muskets and militias.)

There have always been limits to freedom of speech. You can't yell fire in a crowded theater, and you can be sued if you go around maliciously defaming people. But in an era of instant communication and immediate response, the question arises: Should more limits be adopted? And if so, what should they look like? Does freedom of speech give you the right to shout over someone so no one can hear their speech? What about speech that offends another person? I'll explore these questions in turn.


Cable TV networks, talk radio and widely viewed websites are today's equivalent of a megaphone. They amplify a message in a way that can expand a speaker's - or writer's - audience exponentially.

Does freedom of speech also give you the right to wield such a modern megaphone? I argue that it doesn't. The First Amendment's guarantee was meant to encourage a level playing field by taking government out of the picture ("Congress shall make no law ..."). Government was excluded from any official role in organized religion for the same reason.

But the field is anything but level. Heavily funded corporations, political action committees, unions and other entities have handed out multimillion-dollar megaphones to those they believe will do their bidding most effectively. This plays out differently in two arenas: the public sector and private sector.

In the private sector, the person paying for the megaphone calls the shots. The government's only role in the situation is to protect the owner of the megaphone. Think about it. In earlier times, the press was one of the few real megaphones available, and its freedom is expressly protected under the First Amendment. It stands to reason that an entity can choose to supply a megaphone to whomever it chooses (or withhold it), for whatever reason - just as a newspaper can choose what and what not to publish. Access to the megaphone is a privilege, not a right.

People in the audience who don't like what's being said, however, have every right to use the "power of the purse" (withholding business, urging a boycott) in persuading the owner of the megaphone to take it away from someone and/or hand it to someone else.

I wrote about this when a controversy arose over anti-gay comments made by Phil Robertson on the A&E show Duck Dynasty. My point was that A&E had every right to decide who used its megaphone and for what purposes. "Congress shall make no law" can't be translated into "A&E shall make no policy." One involves the government; the other doesn't.

The fascinating result of all this was that pressure from one side led to Robertson's suspension from the program - after which pressure from his supporters led to his reinstatement a few days later. This showed both the public's ability to influence decisions by speaking out and A&E's protected role as owner of the megaphone to decide who would wield it. Regardless of which side you're on, I'd say free speech worked exactly the way it's supposed to.

On the other hand, however, I would argue (against the current Supreme Court majority) that government's role in regulating megaphones under the First Amendment changes when it comes to public elections - because, in this case, the government decides who gets to use the megaphone. By interpreting the Constitution to allow unlimited private funding of elections under Citizens United, the high court has effectively handed the megaphone to some people (those with sufficient funds to influence an election), while withholding it from others.

Does limiting the amount of money an individual can contribute to a candidate have a chilling effect on free speech? Only for those who can afford to buy a megaphone. Overall, it encourages free speech by allowing a far larger number of candidates and proposals a seat at the table.

It also could, effectively, shorten the campaign season by forcing candidates to spend their (more limited) funds more judiciously. Under the "unlimited funding" system now in place, for instance, 3 of 17 Republican candidates and half the Democratic field (3 of 6) had already dropped out of the 2016 presidential race more than two months before the first caucuses in Iowa. Others have been forced to scale back operations, limiting the reach of their message. All this before any votes have been cast. This system not only curtails speech, it damages democracy by replacing votes with dollars in deciding who can even reach the starting line.


The issue of megaphones gets even more complicated when it shows up on college campuses, some of which are publicly (government) funded, and others of which are private entities.

The tradition of freedom of speech in an educational context dates back to Athens (also the "cradle of democracy"), where philosophical "schools" would openly debate issues of policy and philosophy. In light of this, it's ironic that Socrates, the famed philosopher, was executed on the twin charges of rejecting the city's gods and corrupting its youth ... through the exercise of free speech.

Universities in the United States have long dedicated themselves to free speech as a means of furthering dialogue and facilitating learning. Upper-division seminar classes encourage student participation, often through the use of the Socratic Method. In the 1960s, the Free Speech Movement that began at UC Berkeley and quickly spread encouraged students to speak out forcefully on such issues as civil rights and the Vietnam War.

Now, however, that seems to have been flipped on its head - ironically at the behest of those who, like the architects of the Free Speech Movement, describe themselves as liberals. Instead of encouraging free speech, they're seeking to limit it by focusing on "microaggressions" and demanding "trigger warnings" that sound not too different from those Parental Advisory stickers that appear on music releases deemed to contain explicit content.

One problem with microaggressions is they're often unconscious: Someone offends you without realizing it.

The obvious response would be to make the person aware that he/she has offended you. "Hey, do you realize the word 'Redskin' is a derogatory term that calls attention to a person's skin color? It offends me when you use it." But many who focus on microaggression go further: They shame even unintentional slights, because the person "should have known better." From there, it's a short step to believing that the person actually did know better: that the slight was intentionally cruel.

Next, the aggrieved party may start to be on the lookout such slights. This is natural. If you've been hurt, you don't want it to happen again, and you become more sensitive to potentially threatening situations.

Such a person would, also naturally, focus on people who outside his or her particular group. If this sounds like profiling, it is.

After a while, the slights, intentional and unintentional, real and imagined, begin to add up, until the person becomes convinced they are pervasive among members of the "other" race/gender/social class.

These slights then become a defining feature of that group - as much so as that group's skin color, gender or economic status. People in that group are treated as guilty until proven innocent, with the expectation and belief that they are prejudiced simply based on who they are - not what they've done.

Merely being offended doesn't make a premise valid or one's logic sound. In our desire not to invalidate a victim's feelings, have we instead created new victims by automatically validating conclusions that may or may not be true?


Whereas the 1960s movement made a point of offending people, the current movement seeks to ensure that people aren't offended. Free-speech activists in that earlier time spoke out most often on behalf of minorities and those who lacked a significant voice in policies that affected them - such as potential draftees. Today's activists seek to "protect" some of the same individuals by limiting speech.

Few of these individuals would criticize the Free Speech Movement, as most of them still share its central goal of giving voice to the socially and politically disenfranchised. But what becomes apparent is that the most vocal cries of "Microaggression!" are coming from those who not only disapprove of what others are saying but are willing to fight hard to keep them from saying it.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, and, undoubtedly, Voltaire, would certainly not approve. Nor, I think, would Socrates or those who champion the method of discourse that bears his name.

Lest you think that liberals are the only ones involved in this sort of thing, it should be pointed out that those at the other end of the political spectrum are equally guilty. Both sides have been eager to ban books they don't like from libraries - which, like universities, are supposed to be dedicated to the spread of information - if they don't line up with the "proper" agenda. Some conservatives don't like Harry Potter or The Grapes of Wrath; some liberals object to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Both sides seem to be saying, "Free speech is fine and dandy, so long as it isn't a threat to my agenda."

As with elections, public universities and public libraries are places where the government has a role to play, and the only role consistent with the First Amendment is supporting freedom of speech - regardless of whose agenda is being promoted or whose feelings are being hurt. Private universities (that receive no public funds) and libraries are a different story. There, the megaphone is wielded by people outside the government, and they get to set the agendas as they see fit, whether they be conservative Christian institutions or bastions of liberalism.


But what happens when a guest who has expressed controversial viewpoints is invited to speak at a university?

Should a university provide a megaphone to someone who has expressed views a majority of its students find uncomfortable or even ethically abhorrent? 

Cardiff University in the UK recently rejected a petition to cancel an appearance by feminist author Germaine Greer that was based on remarks directed at transgender women: "Just because you lop off your d--- and then wear a dress doesn't make you a f------ woman. I've asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots, and I'm going to wear a brown coat, but that won't turn me into a f------ cocker spaniel."

The comments were undeniably offensive and put the university in a difficult position, given its dual identity as gatekeeper and facilitator. In the former role, it got to decide whom to invite in the first place: who should wield its megaphone. In the latter, it is dedicated to facilitating open discussion. As Colin Riordan, the university vice chancellor, put it, "We are committed to freedom of speech and open debate. Our events include speakers with a range of views, all of which are rigorously challenged and debated. This event will be no different."

In other cases, however, universities have rescinded invitations for prominent individuals to speak - often at graduation events - because of controversial views. The University of Vermont, for instance, canceled economist/actor Ben Stein's scheduled commencement address in 2009 after students objected that he rejected the theory of evolution. In another case, Dustin Lawrence Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter for the Harvey Milk biopic Milk, was cut from the graduation program at Pasadena City College after sexually explicit pictures were hacked from his ex's computer and circulated online. The college subsequently reinstated him as its speaker.

Commencement speeches aren't the same as mid-semester lectures. For one thing, the entire student body is involved at graduation. For another, it's not an optional exercise - unless a student chooses to miss his or her own ceremony, which would be a shame. Typically, the speaker is expected to be inspirational, reflecting commonly held values, rather than controversial.

That is (or should be) common sense.

But common sense seems to be missing all too often from debates over microaggressions, trigger warnings, hurt feelings and free speech. So does civility. 

Civility was certainly absent when a Black Lives Matter group marched to the Dartmouth College library in New Hampshire earlier this month (November 2015), some of them shouting "F--- you, you filthy white f---s! F--- you and your comfort. F--- you, you racists." When one girl in started to cry, one of the protesters reportedly screamed, "F--- your white tears."

Yes, freedom of speech protects this - though Dartmouth, a private college, is investigating and can certainly dole out consequences for violations to its code of conduct. But what does it accomplish, other than to alienate people who might otherwise listen? And who is truly prejudiced here? Based on the language directed at people they didn't even know, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the protesters shouting obscenities had made up their minds that all white people were a bunch of "filthy ... racists."

Perhaps an even more important question is this: Should the "comfort" of some people be our main concern or, rather, the discomfort of others? Shouldn't we strive to make everyone feel more comfortable? 

The either/or mentality pits people against one another, rather than encouraging them to work together at finding a solution.

If we were civil, sensitive and respectful to one another, we wouldn't feel the need to use shame and political pressure to muzzle those who don't share our agenda. We wouldn't be reticent to share our diverse opinions without feeling the need to impose them on others. We wouldn't be afraid to express our own distinct cultural, gender, racial and social identities while at the same time seeking commonality and embracing our shared national and human experiences.

Some people say, "Stop being so offended!" Others say, "Stop being so offensive!" Civil discourse requires that we heed both those injunctions, rather than loudly affirming one and conveniently ignoring the other.

Free speech and sensitivity aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they work best when they go hand-in-hand. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have forgotten that. Consider this a friendly reminder.