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October 15

How do you decide between the free speech rights of one person or group and the free speech rights of another? This question came in at the beginning of the term specifically around the demonstrations at the Republican National Convention. However if we broaden it a bit, this very questions was a subtext of many of the articles in the Carletonian last week related to political life and discussion at Carleton. If we set aside the legal issues around protest for a moment, the question really regards the ethical exercise of free speech.

First, the original context of the question. What are the issues in a protest situation? Beyond the basic right to assemble, speak and demonstrate, what else ought to be protected? Is it alright to make so much noise so as to disrupt the ability of an opposing group to carry out normal business? Is it ethical to block the entrance to a function or gathering, even if you are willing to accept the consequences of your actions? Doesn’t it still deprive others of their rights? Does it matter which group is in the majority, or are there special responsibilities to protect the rights of the minority (imagine the ratio of protestors to those trying to gather is 100 to 1)? What if it is neo-Nazis at a Civil Rights March? Does the actual nature of the gathering or the “ethics” of one group or the other matter? I believe protest is a critical part of a healthy democracy. But any of us who choose to exercise these rights must grapple with these and other crucial ethical issues.

Now let’s move it even closer to home. What about free speech on a campus like Carleton? Are there even core values we share around this? Amidst the increasing diversity of Carleton and our world, this will often be an important place to begin. What seems the logical “highest good” to me may well not be to someone of another culture, philosophy or religious tradition. How would you state it: Should anyone be able to share their views on any subject without fear of reprisal or harm? How about critique, is that alright, or should it only be offered if invited? Does the relative power of the speaker matter? Or is free speech defined in this way not the highest good at all? Should the potential harm of the speech itself be considered? Or can only sticks and stones break bones? If we have differences even at the level of core values, how do we negotiate these? How do we decide which ethical framework we will live under as a community?

Finally, it is certainly not hard to hear amidst the comments about the state of political life at Carleton frustration with a basic lack of civility or a willingness to honor another point of view. How do we respect one another in this community while passionately witnessing to our own beliefs, political or otherwise? How do we foster even livelier discussion and debate while injecting humility and respect into the mix?

Maybe you thought the “Ask the Ethicist” column would provide more answers than questions. Although the goal of this column is always to open up the conversation, this week in particular we are trying a new experiment. I have created a new caucus conference called “Ask the Ethicist”. Item 1 is descriptive of the conference, item 2 is another place for you to submit anonymous “Ask the Ethicist” questions, and item 3 (Free Speech) is a place to respond to this article. If you would like to take on one of the free speech questions above or provide your own ideas about the ethics of free speech, join the conversation. These are important issues, both for Carleton and beyond. Exercise your ethical toolbox!

Doug Mork,
PERC Director