Perspectives

Does free speech offend you? Speak out!

October 13, 2017

A nationwide furor over professional athletes’ protesting during the national anthem coincided with a couple of events on Troy University’s main campus: the library’s Banned Books Week and a futile effort by some individuals to suppress a story in the student newspaper by stealing papers.

President Donald Trump ignited the anthem controversy during a political rally in Huntsville, Alabama. He criticized athletes who were kneeling to protest police brutality against blacks. He framed their actions as an insult to the country and called on team owners to fire the athletes.

The result was that even more athletes, and some owners, found ways to publicly demonstrate disagreement with the president and to defend free speech. Colin Kaepernick — the player who started the protest last year — could take some satisfaction in the response, but the current debate has strayed from his original point about the police.

This sequence of events show why it’s both advantageous and risky to use an indirect way to express your grievance.

Because of his sports prominence, Kaepernick brought more attention to his issue than if someone had, say, made a speech or written an op-ed article. But when you express your point indirectly, some people miss the point or get distracted by other issues, and it’s easier for opponents to impugn your motives.

Still, entertainers, songs, TV shows, movies and sports influence people’s lifestyles, values and votes. Public marches, demonstrations and boycotts have changed the course of history for the better. Some of them were even illegal — the Boston Tea Party, for example.

Banned Books Week in the Troy University library focused on the value in books that some people object to, such as works by Mark Twain and Alabama’s Harper Lee.

Just recently, a school librarian in Massachusetts took exception (for reasons that seemed more political than literary) to First Lady Melania Trump’s donation of books written by Dr. Seuss, whom she criticized as “a bit of a cliché.”

Most librarians know better. Dr. Seuss has enticed countless children to read. I vividly remember when, years ago, my preschool daughter interrupted my reading of “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” by perfectly reciting a page that she had memorized.

Parents and educators should be discreet about exposing young children to materials intended for adults. But I’ve never known an adult who thought somebody else should be deciding what he or she could read or watch.

In fact, the surest way to make a book a best-seller is to ban it. Adults (like children) find the forbidden fruit to be most appealing. And adults have a right to read almost anything they choose.

From time to time on campus and off, people are so offended by a newspaper article that they grab papers off the news racks, trying to take the story out of circulation. Thus, they make the newspapers forbidden fruits, increase circulation, and often buy themselves bad publicity.

They are also committing a crime (theft) and interfering with the free-speech rights of those who produced the newspaper or were quoted in it.

It happened again recently to the Tropolitan, Troy’s student newspaper. Some papers got stolen, but the story was still available free at TropNews.com.

This T-shirt slogan is a reminder of 2010, when members of a student organization tried to suppress a story by removing copies of Troy University’s student newspaper, the Tropolitan, from news racks. (Photo by Steve Stewart)

This T-shirt slogan is a reminder of 2010, when members of a student organization tried to suppress a story by removing copies of Troy University’s student newspaper, the Tropolitan, from news racks. (Photo by Steve Stewart)

This brought to mind a case back in 2010 when members of a student organization were caught throwing Tropolitans into dumpsters because of a true story they thought reflected badly on their group. The university required the organization to pay for reprinting the paper — and the lead story in the reprint described the paper-snatching and its consequences, identifying the offenders.

The Tropolitan soon had a new slogan: “The Trop — It’s a Steal.” As the newspaper’s faculty adviser, I am privileged to own one of the T-shirts.

I posted the T-shirt on Facebook recently, and former Tropolitan staff members commented that it invoked some of their fondest college memories. I doubt the memories are as fond on the other side.

Let people have their say as long as they do it peacefully. The best way to counter information or opinions you disagree with is to express your own point of view. Make a thoughtful post on Facebook, write a blog, speak out at a meeting, call the writer or editor to complain, send a letter to the editor, or stage your own peaceful protest.