It felt like, until recently, the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution held truth. It was a symbol: a set of words that Americans could look to as evidence that we are not only an accepting, tolerant nation, but also a free one. The current political sphere negates Constitutional values tied to this Amendment with attempts to unfairly limit the freedom of the press and the right to protest, and abusing perhaps the most powerful and nuanced aspect of the First Amendment: freedom of speech.
After this year’s election, a lot of questions were raised from people across the political spectrum about the conduct of free speech and the use of offensive language. The fear of President Trump’s campaign’s underlying racist, sexist, xenophobic rhetoric has now shifted into a fear of ongoing conversations about the immigrant ban, federally defunding Planned Parenthood, abortion laws, environmental issues, and undocumented immigrants. Students have every right to express their frustration with the current administration and ongoing political discussions that directly affect their rights and livelihoods. They also possess the right to express whatever they want, through clothing, actions, and words that contradict majority opinion, as long as their dress doesn’t violate the dress code.
In the same vein, everyone has the right to express ideas that are offensive, rude, and insensitive. But, the key aspect of freedom of expression that all students must realize is that, while people have the right to do these things, they also have to face the repercussions. Consequences of offensive speech can range from needing to work things out through a simple conversation, to sitting down and talking to teachers and frustrated students about what’s been said or seen.
Regardless of how students’ divided opinions manifest politically, no one should use their First Amendment rights to justify being insensitive or rude. And, if students do, the First Amendment doesn’t guard against repercussions to offensive language. Every single person and their political values, excluding those that oppress other groups of people, deserve respect. It is possible to respect those who support Trump and those still hurting from Clinton’s loss and those somewhere in the middle. It is possible to celebrate Trump’s actions and support his ideas without disparaging those who disagree with his campaign platform or changes implemented during the first month in office. Not only is it possible, but it is also necessary: as a loving and accepting community, students must choose to use their First Amendment rights, their ability to express whatever they want, in ways that foster understanding, prompt productive discussions, and build empathy.
The freedom we’re given by those 45 words is accompanied by a responsibility—to conduct ourselves in a manner that aligns with the spirit of the First Amendment. Students must rise to meet those expectations of respect by thinking about not only the actual language they use and ideas they express, but how those words impact their peers and the larger community.