Vakil: Free speech is a loaded gun


Caroline Vakil, Columnist

When I saw the headline “Pro-Rape ‘Men’s Rights’ Group Plans Saturday Rally in Chicago” on my Facebook newsfeed a few days ago, my jaw dropped.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I assumed many of us were on the same page when it came to rape: The practice is horrendous and wrong and should never be condoned. However, although this rally never came to fruition as it was canceled by Daryush Valizadeh —  the leader of online group Return of Kings, which sponsored this rally — it made me realize two things: how disconnected we might be from issues such as rape and violence and more importantly, the way we practice free speech.

This rally is one of the few times when exercising free speech has made me feel sick. I understand that freedom of speech can entail making people incredibly uncomfortable and angry. In a way, it is pretty remarkable that we as a nation are more open to free speech than many countries, even when it comes to serious topics like heavy criticism of the government. However, this pro-rape rally walks a very fine line between promoting free speech and endangering the lives of others. Groups have to be sensitive of this when exercising their rights.

Groups that utilize their right to free speech are obligated to consider the potential consequences of their actions.

In some ways, this seemed like an ironic expression of free speech. Although we will never know what would have become of the rally and even though rallying is in itself nonviolent (if done appropriately), the idea of condoning such a serious criminal offense is hurtful to many, especially those who have dealt with and are continuing to cope with their rape experiences. The point of free speech is to express your beliefs in a non-threatening manner.

In fact, I would argue that promoting rape through a rally endorses hurtful practices that have the ability to endanger the lives of others. By promoting this idea, it ironically contradicts the First Amendment’s point of encouraging free speech in a nonviolent manner.

And this is not the first time we have come close to crossing this line. One clear example that comes to mind is a pro-Nazi rally that was scheduled to happen in Skokie — a village that contains a large number of Holocaust survivors  — in 1977. Although Skokie won in moving the location of the rally, the rally still continued in Chicago.

And yet, although I argue that this crosses a line in interpreting the First Amendment, the argument still is not that simple. The reasons why the rally was not completely canceled were because the Illinois Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court argued collectively that expressions of hatred could not inhibit the freedom of speech, that the intent of the rally was not to inflict emotional harm onto its residents (however, it is not always suggested to interpret intentions) and that the possibility of a violent clash between Neo-Nazis and counter-protesters was not a sufficient reason to outlaw the rally.

Although the arguments made are incredibly controversial, the courts do have a point. Expressions of hatred are condoned all the time in other fashions — criticism, flag-burnings, you name it — and we still see them as legitimate forms of free speech. Also, as long as the rally itself is nonviolent, it legally follows the laws of the First Amendment.

Still, it is hard to grapple with this issue when it toys with definitions of what should be and what actually is. Until recently, I interpreted free speech as a good thing. However, I realize this idea of totally liberated opinion is not as safe or as sweet as it once sounded. Free speech incorporates open criticism, but it also has implications of upsetting people and promoting hatred — things I never imagined being results of the democratic rights we hold.

Caroline Vakil is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.