Protests against free speech seem to be increasing. The current protests against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at the United Nations and at Columbia University is another example and offers us a good test of our own principles of communication and the ethical guidelines that we say should govern communication.
These protests contradict everything we teach in our classes and in our textbooks about giving people an honest hearing even when we disagree and being respectful of those with different (even distasteful) views. Regardless of what we may think of President Ahmadinejad, or of any others with points of view different (maybe drastically different) from our own, we need to hear what they have to say. We need to listen first, and then critically evaluate what they say. To assume that we know what they’re going to say is simply unproductive, as every textbook in communication points out in the chapter on listening.
We need to give even those who disagree with us, the same rights to free expression that we want for ourselves.
Protests against freedom of expression imply that we (the public) are not capable of critically evaluating information and coming to informed decisions. Those who protest would rather that they make up our minds for us and tell us what we can and what we cannot hear. And of course we need wonder, if such protests are effective, what other points of view will be denied freedom of speech.
What makes this situation even more important and potentially so damaging to our principles of free speech is that these protests are attacking freedom of expression in two of the most important arenas for free speech—the United Nations and the university. If we cannot have free speech here, there is little hope that we can have it anywhere.
The NCA Credo for Ethical Communication says: We endorse freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance of dissent to achieve the informed and responsible decision making fundamental to a civil society. This is an important principle that needs to be recalled even when we disagree (perhaps especially when we disagree) with the person’s message.
Maybe it’s time for NCA (and ICA and ILA) to make these principles known more widely. This would be a perfect time to do so.