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Opposing beliefs should be equally respected

TJ Parks

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My attitude toward free speech was heavily influenced by my Uncle Doc, a friend of the family who was very vocal with his opinions, many of which ran opposite to my own. For a long time I never said anything about his rants, fearing that our relationship might be strained if I told him I thought he was wrong. Facebook post after Facebook post, I watched in silence as he used social media to vent his frustrations and 
champion his causes.

Finally, I messaged him about it. At first he didn’t respond. Worried that he was angry, I sent an apology for losing my temper. When he finally replied to my message, I was surprised to find that he was not angry at all – he was proud. He said he loved it when people use their First Amendment rights, and he said I should never apologize for voicing my opinion. I thank him for that advice frequently in my life, particularly when I peek in the online comments section every two weeks to see what 
people have to say about 
my articles.

Free speech is an important part of American culture. It is a proponent of change and a 
safeguard against tyranny. Social movements from abolition to women’s suffrage were beneficiaries of work done by speakers and writers such as William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr. Free speech also gives citizens the opportunity to openly talk about politicians, allowing the public to hold officials accountable for 
their actions.

Despite the importance free speech has in our society, free speech often finds itself in danger. The Sedition Act passed in 1798 limited speech criticizing the federal government. During the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s, a blacklist prevented numerous professionals in the film industry suspected of being communists from 
obtaining work.

Even today, free speech experiences threats from multiple sources. The French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and a free speech rally in Copenhagen, Denmark, have both been targets of physical violence. The University of Michigan student newspaper suspended columnist Omar Mahmood from its writing staff after he wrote a controversial article satirizing politically-left 
social movements.

The ideas expressed by these individuals, publications and rallies are controversial viewpoints championed by a minority of people. Although that quality puts these ideas at odds with most of the public and at times makes them offensive to mainstream society, it is also the quality that makes them worth protecting. Many ideas and values popular today began as opinions expressed by a minority of people. The principle of minority rights is a key principle of American democracy, and it is through the protection of minority rights that change can occur and conversations can be held. The benefits of free speech and minority viewpoints are too important to restrict them on the basis that some viewpoints are offensive. People should not be forced to apologize for their opinions, nor should they be silenced for them. All voices in the conversation, no matter how disagreeable they are, play an important role. So please, let us keep the 
conversation going.

TJ Parks is a freshman majoring in anthropology, history 
and journalism. His column runs biweekly.

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Opposing beliefs should be equally respected