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Is free speech under threat? Discussion group raises questions about first amendment rights

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Taylor Walding

Variety Editor

American Downfall, a discussion group led by Luke Ritter, a lecturer of history, organized a discussion on the concept of free speech and its consequences, particularly focusing on whether free speech is under threat on college campuses around the United States.

Before the discussion, Ritter took an anonymous poll through Kahoot to survey the opinions of those present. According to the poll, 12 people believed free speech is under threat in the United States, whereas eight did not think so.

Caleb Cummings, a junior history and business major from Huntsville, said he believes it’s a difference between the court of public opinion and the court of law.

“(It’s) not from any governmental standpoint or anything bureaucratic; I think it’s more of how we view things socially and what terms we want to use,” Cummings said.

Cummings also discussed the nature of social media and its impact on the freedom of speech.

“Social media has changed the concept of free speech a lot because it gives you access to a lot of offhand comments that you may or may not have been fully intentional with like sarcasm which can’t be understood (without verbal cues),” Cummings said. “It’s difficult because there’s more record to what you say and hopefully you have more responsibility than ever before.”

JoJo Coleman, a freshman history major from Lafayette, Lousiana, also attended the discussion.

“People get offended more easily than they probably should, everybody says things that other people don’t like, and just because someone said something that you don’t like doesn’t make them an evil person or wrong or anything like that,” Coleman said. “It just is their opinion.”

Coleman also expressed that the right to freedom of speech is an important part of life.

“You don’t want to infringe on anybody else’s right and say, ‘You can’t say that,’ but you’ve just got to take other people’s opinions with a grain of salt and understand that people are going to think about things differently than you are. That doesn’t make them any less of a good person — they just have a different viewpoint than you.”

Coleman stated several times his desire to have cordial conversation with others whose opinions differ from his. This theme seemed evident in the atmosphere at the discussion.  

“It’s not supposed to be my opinion versus your opinion. It’s that I have this viewpoint and you have that viewpoint, so let’s talk about it,” Coleman said. “We can end up with something better. So it is important to talk about it.” 

Joanna Ellis, a junior history education major from Gardendale, said social media has definitely changed the consequences of free speech. 

“Social media has made it so that something you said 10 years ago can be held accountable to you now,” Ellis said. “Whereas 20 years ago, that just went away so long as no one important heard it.” 

American Downfall usually has an average attendance of about five faculty members from various departments as well as 25 students who engage in various topics of discussion pertinent to current events.

The Office of Civic Engagement provided free pizza and drinks to those in attendance.

This discussion was held at noon on Friday, Oct. 12, in Trojan Center 119.