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Our Freedom of Speech

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Upon arrival at a Model United Nations conference in Washington, D.C. last week, five classmates and I begrudgingly attended what we assumed would be an incredibly boring event: Opening Ceremonies. Much to our surprise, the event was not tedious at all, but instead extremely controversial.

The keynote speaker was David J. Kramer, the executive director of Freedom House (an "independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world"). He, as expected, discussed the need to spread democracy (and, consequently, freedom) in regions where people are oppressed by their governments. This discussion was inherently controversial from the get-go, but it was certainly not outrageous until he mentioned the oppression of the Chinese government. In a room full of American students who seemingly have little-to-no ties to China, such a conversation may spark debate but little more. In a room with a 200-person delegation from China, however, this speech sparked outrage as the entire delegation stormed out the room with a smaller Russian delegation trailing behind. For the rest of the conference, the halls echoed with their anger at (what they called) Kramer's "offensive, ignorant and inappropriate remarks."

Amidst this controversy, we could not escape constant mention of our personal freedoms since we were in Washington, D.C. Of course, this includes freedom of speech. Yes, technically our first amendment right to free speech only provides protection from government interference in our speech. Yet, we are part of a nation that allows people to do or act or say whatever they wish, so long as it does not break the legal code. Or so we were told. With this in mind, we found ourselves trying to balance the praises of American freedom we heard on the streets of Washington with the complaints of offended delegates we heard in the halls of the conference. Well, which is it? Is Kramer (or should Kramer be) free to voice his beliefs without restriction? Or should we restrict how "free" his speech should be based on circumstance (in this case, the fact that there was a Chinese delegation in the audience)?

It seems to me that we should embrace a total freedom of speech, by which I mean people should be free to voice their opinions regardless of their audience. Anything else would be hypocritical and ineffectual. How can we be a "free" society if speakers are so afraid of offending people that they are too busy tip-toeing around their audience to state their actual beliefs? Had the NAIMUN staff told Kramer "OK sir, you can discuss what you'd like so long as you hide your true ideas because they might offend part of our audience," that would have been absurd. Where is the freedom in that?

More importantly, how will we ever get anything done if all speakers are crowd-pleasers, and there is no debate or controversy? This was, after all, a Model United Nations conference: an event built on the concept that argument and fiery debate is an effective and efficient way to solve problems. While Kramer's speech was certainly not palatable to the entire audience, it did ignite a conference-wide conversation of what is and isn't appropriate to say in public. And, obviously, it inspired this blog. As long as people are talking or writing or reading or even just thinking about controversial issues, then we will all be closer to reaching a solution. But, if such events feature speakers who make generalized indubitable statements about a need to "end world hunger," then there is no discussion. Instead, there is only a large room of non-engaged "listeners" with a foot out the door. It is up to controversial speakers and thinkers such as Kramer to keep us invested in and talking about issues.

This is not to say that I necessarily agree with Kramer's comments, or that I condone the actions of the Chinese delegates who exited the room. I don't, however, think that Kramer's remarks were inappropriate for the occasion. On the contrary, they were perfectly appropriate because they initiated heated and important discussions. To me, that is why we have the freedom of speech: for the sake of debate and, ultimately, progress.