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Anthony Romero discusses free speech at Snyder lecture

Published: Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 07:11

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Justin McCallum for The Tufts Daily

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke about freedom of expression at yesterday’s Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), delivered the 16th Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture in Distler Performance Hall yesterday afternoon.

The lecture, entitled “Sticks and Stones: Freedom of Expression and Political Correction,” addressed America’s history of protecting freedom of speech and what can be done about ongoing violations of this constitutional value.

“While it seems there is now more free speech than ever, there are also more justifications than ever to limit that free speech,” he said.

Romero said it was fitting to be speaking of this matter in Massachusetts, where many of the Founding Fathers began the campaign for free speech over 200 years ago during the American Revolution.

“They made it a core belief of theirs,” Romero said. “It reminds me of why free and unfettered speech is so important — it’s how important ideas become real.”

Romero claimed that standing by the First Amendment can produce many harmful side effects, denouncing the idiomatic expression that is referenced in his lecture’s title: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

“The truth is, words do hurt,” he said. “Applied effectively, like a thumb within a bruise, words can hurt a lot.”

Romero described his numerous encounters with hurtful hate speech, from growing up as a gay Puerto Rican in the Bronx to the hate mail he now receives every day at his job.

He added that he witnessed many attempts to curtail that speech, including the “hate speech codes” that were applied to nationwide college campuses, including his own, while he was attending Stanford Law School over 20 years ago.

Although these codes were designed to combat racist, homophobic and sexist language on campus, Romero claimed that this was an ineffective and even counterproductive means of acting against hatred.

“I believe that there is no place for speech codes of any kind on a college campus,” he said. “Restricting that speech doesn’t make the hate go away ... You drive that hate and bigotry underground and it becomes harder and harder to control ... In a nursing environment, you need to understand what people think and say to one another.”

Romero then criticized Tufts for an incident in 2007 in which The Primary Source was forbidden from publishing anonymous articles after two pieces provoked sensitive reactions from Muslim and black students.

“Frankly, that’s an unconstitutional denial of free speech,” Romero said. “The freedom to speak anonymously is a right ... once you decide some authority has the right to determine what is or is not legitimate speech, you’ve lost control of the system.”

Romero argued that it is especially important to protect freedom of speech on college campuses, as they are places where students foster many fresh ideas and where many landmark movements — including Occupy Wall Street, the anti−Vietnam War movement and much of the civil rights movement — originated before gaining momentum in the outside world.

“That’s why college life is so great,” he said. “It’s the incubator of those free ideas that will then germinate elsewhere.”

Romero also challenged President Barack Obama to step up his efforts to protect free speech nationwide, though he congratulated him for winning a second term in light of the tremendous opposition he has faced while in office.

“He is the most unjustly criticized, vilified and stereotyped president I have ever known,” Romero said. “The level of overt racism I have seen against our first black president disgusts me.”

Romero still asserted that hate speech has a right to exist, giving the example of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, whose leader, Pastor Fred Phelps, Romero has dealt with personally as a client at the ACLU.

“Do I believe [Pastor Phelps’] right to present homophobic speech is essential to my right to speak my mind as a gay activist?” Romero asked. “The answer is yes.”

Romero insisted that the right to free speech must not be compromised, as has occurred previously, for instance, with the establishment of “free speech zones” at several colleges, where student protests and assemblies are constricted to designated areas around campus.

“Designing ‘free speech zones’ is designing to limit free speech as much as possible,” Romero said. “Every part of a college campus should be a free speech zone.”

Romero admitted that “the effects of harmful and degrading speech are real” and that the animosity he has heard and read from others “has given [him] many sleepless nights.” All the same, he believes that the benefits of protecting free speech outweigh the consequences.

“Would I rather live in a society that allowed hateful, hurtful speech,” he asked at the end of his lecture, “or would I rather live in a society where I’m afraid to speak my mind? I think that type of society would be much harder to sleep in.”

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