Free speech is a double-edged sword

This article originally appeared in the September 06, 2017 issue of the Davis Enterprise.

During my early years working in community media, the topic of hate speech arose frequently at conferences and on listservs.

The example that always surfaced was, “If the Ku Klux Klan comes to us and wants to air programming, do we have to air it?” Back then, and in a town like Davis, that seemed like a very remote possibility, and our discussions about it seemed academic. But in the context of American politics today, the question has surfaced anew on community media forums.

The answer then, and now, is yes. It’s neither an easy nor a comfortable answer. Talking about free speech is a slippery slope, especially when hypothetical scenarios meet grim reality, as they did in Charlottesville.

Centers such as Davis Media Access are rooted in the tradition of public access channels, which are platforms for free expression and free speech. In conversations with perhaps 100 community members over the years who have complained about programming espousing a viewpoint they didn’t like, I’ve always said that free speech is a double-edged sword. We may not like or appreciate every viewpoint aired on our channel, but as a colleague of mine says, “It’s above our pay grade to decide what is legal; that’s a decision for the courts.”

One of public access’ tenets is a prohibition against pre-screening programming, because we don’t want to act to restrict anyone’s free speech. Public access channels can, and do, decide when and how often a show will air, and typically also take pains to make sure opposing views are sought out and represented.

Deep Dish TV — a New York-based organization that has produced and distributed independent media since 1984 — did a 10-part series in the early ’90s called ‘Spigots for Bigots or Channels for Change?” This series was a response to the use of public access channels by white supremacists, addressing the controversy that ensues between civil rights and civil liberties.

The debate reached its peak in Kansas City, Mo., when the KKK applied for time on the local access channel. The city council, in response to citywide pressure, voted to give up their access channel rather than accept Klan programming.

The series includes interviews with activists, constitutional lawyers and access users and staff. It will begin airing on DCTV Comcast Channel 15 in Davis at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, and run in that slot through Free Speech Week, Oct. 15-20. Each episode is 30 to 60 minutes long.

These are fraught times, and even a trip to the grocery store is a landmine. (Diatribe among the rutabagas, anyone?) And what about visitors who bring their strong political opinions into the workplace and foist them on others? What of friends who share unwanted views on one’s social media? Where are the lines there? Being a free speech advocate is not easy.

I like what UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ had to say recently, in her remarks on Charlottesville: “Nonetheless, defending the right of free speech for those whose ideas we find offensive is not easy. It often conflicts with the values we hold as a community — tolerance, inclusion, reason and diversity. Some constitutionally protected speech attacks the very identity of particular groups of individuals in ways that are deeply hurtful.

“However, the right response is not the heckler’s veto, or what some call platform denial. Call toxic speech out for what it is, don’t shout it down, for in shouting it down, you collude in the narrative that universities are not open to all speech. Respond to hate speech with more speech.”