As we begin 2023, let us resolve to consider our use of the free speech clause of the First Amendment of our Constitution. What we say matters, possibly even more than what we do.

As we know, hate speech can only produce more hate, as we have witnessed when the speech is fiery and presented to a group of willing listeners, violence is produced. Trump was able to instigate the January 6th insurrection at our Capitol aimed against the very existence of our democracy with his hateful rhetoric. That treasonous attempted coup caused irreparable damage to our nation and the threads of cooperation, already weakened, between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.

How can we reduce hurtful speech? A beginning might be a better awareness of the words we use and also cognizance of our unconscious bigotry. What might be “accepted and seemingly harmless” to some can be hurtful to others. Not so long ago, it was acceptable to refer to the Japanese as “Japs. Now, it’s an example of ugly, hateful speech, along with slurs used for many other groups such as “Chinks” for Chinese, “Polaks” for Polish, “Kikes” for Jews, “Dagos” for Italians, “Spics” for Latinos and, of course, the “N-word” for African Americans. Under the umbrella of free speech these terms can be used and unfortunately are used, but they are damaging and degrading to both people and cultures. We would certainly have a more peaceful, kind society without these scathing terms.

Another facet of free speech is one that has an even more serious impact as it relates to the right of expression. At present, we have very few restrictions on social and other forms of media. Rarely do commentators or writers distinguish personal views from actual facts. In today’s world, communication spreads at a rapid pace, and social media, tweets, news media, radio and television become a frightening influence on us, especially those messages that are untruthful. For example, Fox News irresponsibly spread Trump’s “big lie” that he was the winner of the 2020 presidential election. Fox News’ cavalier attitude was brought to court by a $1.7 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Election Systems. Fox News falsely accused Dominion of manipulating election ballots resulting in Biden winning the election. For almost two years, this case has been active and to date, has not yet been resolved. It does seem that this should be an easy court battle to win, since a Fox representative accused Dominion on public television for all to hear. However the problem is that “Dominion must prove to a jury that Fox and its TV hosts acted with actual malice.” And because some commentators involved have been replaced by Fox, the case might be settled out of court. One would hope a lesson has been learned that truth must be distinguished from the opinions of a reporter or a news station. This abuse of free speech is not new. It is just more prevalent these days. Years ago, Senator Moynihan said to a reporter, “You are entitled to your own ideas, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

The phrase, “alternate facts” was popularized during Trump’s presidency. The horrific repercussions of spreading untruths forces me to question whether there should be some restrictions on free speech. Most of us welcome a variety of views expressed by our diverse population and therefore do not favor censorship. I have set forth a difficult question because who among us could be without personal or political partisanship and be the one to set reasonable safeguards?

Sadly, it cannot be our Supreme Court with its current biased leanings. Perhaps the year 2023 will hold some answers to benefit all who want civil and honest free speech.

Harriet Hausman, 98 years young, writes a regular column about her hometown, River Forest, and the world.

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