The University of New Mexico hosted a free speech event titled “Challenges, Threats and Dilemmas of Free Speech in the Age of Trump.” The event highlighted the importance of freedom speech and the caveats individuals face in the current political climate. This event was the first in a series of events that will discuss issues in free speech.
According to Pete Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union, his is one of the only organizations that continuously protects the right to freedom speech.
Often groups only bring up the freedom of speech after what they have said has come under fire, Simonson said — however, the ACLU is dedicated to protecting the right to freedom of speech regardless of the speaker.
“Protecting free speech it our core mission. We protect this vital right above all others,” Simonson said.
The 1st Amendment is the cornerstone to all other rights, Simonson said, adding without freedom of speech there is no freedom of religion,no liberty and no pursuit of happiness. He said this is why protecting the right to free speech is paramount.
He said protecting the 1st Amendment is not about endorsing the message a person is giving, but rather, it is about protecting everyone’s right to free speech regardless of the message. He said censorship is dangerous and if people begin to give the government control over what people can and cannot say, certain voices will be systematically silenced.
“We see the right to speak as inseparable from the right to exist,” Simonson said.
According to Simonson, free speech has the potential to be a double edged sword. While the freedom of speech allows people to speak their minds and live their lives in the way that they choose, freedom of speech does allow people to teach or express extremist views Simonson said. He added that these views can be damaging or offensive towards a particular group of people.
Petra Macher is an international student from Hungary attending UNM this semester as an international research student. Macher said she is interested in politics and the current political climate, particularly international politics.
Macher said her interest in politics and the freedom of speech was the reason she chose to attend the event,. According to Macher, freedom of speech is not always easy to navigate because of political correctness and the potential that someone will always have something intolerant to say. Despite this, she said, the modern world is built on the freedom of speech and it is necessary.
“The freedom speech is the base for democracy. It is the foundation for modern society,” Macher said.
As an international student, Macher said she views the 1st Amendment as the core of American society and the foundation for american popular culture. However, she said she has noticed individuals belonging to minority groups are often marginalized and feel unsafe to speak up.
“Here in the country of freedom, some people do not feel safe to wear their culture’s traditional clothing or participate in rituals because of persecution. This is because of the current climate,” Macher said.
According to Simonson, the freedom of press is directly tied to freedom of speech, because it is one of the main sources of information. Simonson said that even before Donald Trump became president he criticized the media when they portrayed him in a negative light.
The media, including newspapers and new stations, have been under scrutiny and under fire recently, he said. According to Simonson, Trump has stated multiple times that the media should not be able to publish or broadcast statements against him.
Simonson said Trump has criticized the Washington Post and the New York Times multiple times. However, despite what Trump says about making laws that prevent the press from publishing articles, videos and other forms of media that criticize his opinions and actions or other events on capitol hill, Simonson said doing so would be nearly impossible. Creating such laws directly violates the 1st Amendment, he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court protects freedom of press even if it publishes statements and information that scrutinizes, criticizes or out right disagrees with the government, he said.
Simonson said people cannot be completely off guard when it comes to protecting freedom of speech and ensuring that the press that is not managed by the government. He said there are safeguards and laws that state it is a constitutional right, but groups like the ACLU and individuals must continue to advocate and fight for the 1st Amendment.
According to Simonson, there are an increasing level of people trying to silence environmentalist groups, the Black Lives Matter movement and Native American groups, such as during Standing Rock. He said protecting minority groups rights to speak out and create change is a key fight.
“Our only hope is to advocate for more freedom of speech, not less. If we start managing freedom of speech then the government will be able to tell us who can say what, silencing many voices,” Simonson said.
Megan Holmen is a freelance news and culture reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or on Twitter @megan_holmen.