Freedom of Speech is an idea which is defined in dictionaries as “the right to speak without censorship or restraint from the government”, corroborated and protected by the U.S government in the First Amendment with a few exceptions such as child pornography and “fighting words”. Last Monday, March 27, the Nee Room hosted a dialogue with 41 Loomis students attending to share their opinions on the definition of free speech as well as its presence within the Loomis community.
All sorts of vastly differing opinions were shared and discussed, “I feel like not everybody got a chance to talk, but all the different opinions were covered in one way or another.” Patrick Pugliese ’18, commented. “The way they [the views] were said might not have been the best way [to put it].” The dialogue didn’t come to any tangible results, as Kiyiana Downer ’18 pointed out. “I don’t think it went really successfully in terms of getting any solutions planned out, it just got people thinking and got them comfortable with shar[ing] their opinions. When I left, I don’t feel fulfilled.” In fact, many felt that none of the main topics discussed during the dialogue – the criteria for a comfortable conversation, repercussions of free speech, and legal and moral definitions of free speech – were given a clear-cut, black-and-white resolution.
Loomis Chaffee, as a diverse private institution, is commonly deemed as the ideal space for the exchange and discussion of different ideologies between students from all over the world. Dissension would arise as a result of the variety of ideas, but participants in the dialogue agreed that such discomfort must be overcome in order for progress to be made. “We can’t come to a school like this just to have our opinions about the world reinforced and not questioned,” said Margaret Kanyoko ’20. For people who grew up in ideologically polarized households and invariably have their mindset moulded according to their environments, high schools like Loomis Chaffee is the place where “you can actually figure out what you believe,” said Grace Wolf ’20 Thea Porter ’20 contended that it is completely fine to sometimes blunder – that it’s all part of a learning experience so that “when you reach adulthood you won’t just stand there and get stuck with an awkward opinion you’ve heard before and don’t know how to respond to.”
“Loomis Chaffee is definitely more liberally-oriented. The Log is too.” Gloria Yi ’17, Log editor in chief said. Although liberal views are more popular on campus, participants agreed that for Loomis Chaffee to represent freedom of speech even better than it does now, both sides of the political spectrum must make a substantial effort at open-mindedness. Kiyiana affirmed that for people with different ideas to be head, they must “make an initiative to voice their thoughts”to give the public a chance to learn about opinions that differ from theirs. During Monday’s dialogue, disagreement was widespread. During the early half of the dialogue, Patrick Pugliese’s reference to the two sexes as “men and women” instead of “male and female” differed from Jette Elbualy ’18’s ideas. The discourse was civil for the most part, “If you are willing to overcome those social pressures, then you should be free to do so,” Ilya Yudkovsky ’18 affirmed.
The distinction between the legal and moral definitions of and restrictions on the freedom of speech was emphasized throughout the course of the dialogue. The legal boundaries of the freedom of speech are more clear-cut, but people generally also abide by the social expectations accompanying speech. The participants of the dialogue eventually came to a sort of agreement that there are certain mannerisms and speaking styles a person may adopt for a more a productive conversation, but nobody is obligated to do so. There’s a fine line between being contentious and inflamatory, and there was not a clear consensus regarding the differences between the two. Ilya pointed out that this is due to the fact that “different people have different thresholds of tolerance,” and that the idea of regulating speech is dangerous as it can possibly go down a “slippery slope” of censorships and restrictions.
Overall, there are certain accomplishments to be extracted out of the dialogue; A distinction between the legal and moral distinctions of the freedom of speech was drawn, conversational mannerisms were discussed, and an acknowledgment of the school’s polarization was made. The dialogue also exposed several questions for Loomis students to ponder upon: is it necessary to take emotions and feelings into account when attempting to have a meaningful conversation? What is the best way to talk about sensitive topics? Can we ever draw a clear line between inflammatory speech and controversial speech? Should people be punished for being deemed “offensive”?