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Even unpopular views deserve protection

By Scott Tibbs. Published in the Indiana Daily Student, January 26, 1998

Is the First Amendment becoming a myth?

Not yet, but continuing efforts to restrict the free speech of Americans should alarm civil libertarians. Laws meant to protect the populace are taking away our freedom of speech at an alarming rate, yet Americans welcome these restrictions as something to be celebrated.

Good intentions do not make good laws. For example, the so-called "veggie libel law" in Texas was seen by many as a much-needed measure to hold people accountable after the bogus Alar apple scare of a few years back. While preventing people from damaging an industry with unfounded or blatantly false claims sounds good, it falls apart as people take it to extremes. When Oprah Winfrey had a guest on her program speculating about the possibility of an outbreak of "mad cow" disease in the United States, a Texas farmer sued her under the misguided law. The possibly chilling effect on the ability of the press to report true health threats from food or other goods might be good for business, but it's bad for America.

Of course, accompanying our right to free speech is the obligation to use speech responsibly. If the press were not so quick to report a nonexistent threat such as the Alar scare without seeking as much evidence as possible, these laws might not have been passed.

But the reining in of free speech is not merely a problem for the far-away entities of the press and big industry. At IU, we have seen attempts to quash the free expression of ideas. In the spring, posters began appearing on campus for a mysterious group calling itself IN. The group was opposed the support OUT receives from the University. Whether IN was a serious political group or merely a joke was not clear, but the University's reaction to IN was indicative of its intolerance of viewpoints in opposition to its own.

Soon after the posters began appearing, I received a forwarded message noting the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Anti-Harassment Team had been notified of this "homophobic" group's presence and would begin an investigation. Concerned about the possible free speech implications of this action, I inquired why IN was being investigated. After all, the only thing IN did was post fliers stating an opinion: They didn't send hate mail or individually harass homosexuals. I was informed IN was not being investigated for being "homophobic." Instead, IN was being investigated because they posted fliers in dorms and on restricted bulletin boards in violation of University flier-posting policy.

As George Strait would say, I have some "ocean front property" in Arizona to sell you if you believe that. Does anybody really believe IN was being investigated for breaking flier-posting regulations? Or the GLB Anti-Harassment Team is the body that normally investigates improper flier-posting? IN was a victim of a witch hunt by an intolerant administration.

Why not let IN express its views? Surely, in an institution of higher learning where we are supposed to be engaged in a free exchange of ideas in order to enhance our education, a group such as IN has as much right to express its views as any other group. As long as IN did not harass individual people, what harm could come from a free exchange of ideas? Is the basis for the funding OUT receives truly so weak the University cannot tolerate any disagreement with its funding policies?

IN disappeared shortly after the controversy over its fliers began, but the free speech implications of this event haunt us a year later. The First Amendment does not say freedom of speech shall not be abridged unless it offends people." It says the freedom of speech shall not be abridged, period -- something the opponents of free speech would do well to learn.