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Unpopular Opinions Are Offensive Speech

I believe it’s clear that Americans need to know more about the First Amendment, and practice in-person interaction, to properly understand how free speech can be a productive part of civil discourse.

-Nancy Costello


A 2018 Knight Foundation survey of 10,000 high school students revealed that 89% of students support others’ rights to express unpopular opinions. In the same survey, however, only 45% of the students believe that people have the right to express speech that may be found offensive by others. Am I wrong, or is public education a complete waste of taxpayer funds if they can't even properly teach our children what the very first amendment to the Constitution means?


Some have suggested that these contradictory results are the product of people seeking to find the balance between what constitutes as free speech and having respect for others. I argue that this is the result of poor education in our public schools. Many surveys reveal a vast majority of people polled support freedom of speech. The more detailed the question, the less support the principles receive, however.


How can 89% students support the right to unpopular opinions, but only 45% support our right to say something others may find offensive? Students are taught in schools that the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect unpopular speech. Today's culture places tremendous value on avoiding words or ideas that offend. The issue I find with the percentages reported is that people are more often than not offended by unpopular opinions; that's why they're unpopular.


If the future of free speech is in the hands of the upcoming generation, we’re doomed. What’s considered offensive is wildly subjective. Who you are may factor into how offensive your words are. For example, President Joe Biden suggested that if you were having a difficult time deciding between him and former President Donald Trump, then “you ain’t black.” While Trump may have been crucified by the offended for saying something so utterly outrageous, Biden was elected President of the United States after his comments.


Subjectivity is extremely dangerous in regards to regulating speech. Who decides what’s offensive? Who decides what constitutes as hate speech? The fact is, offensive speech is free speech protected by the First Amendment. Hate speech is free speech protected by the First Amendment. The vagueness of these proposed categories places a chilling effect on speech. People are choosing to not say things that may be 100% true in fear of offending others. The marketplace of ideas is being destroyed by emotion while public schools continue to place more value on your feelings than your human rights.


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