PC‘ speech clashes with First Amendment

By Wendy Arquilla

The issue of First Amendment rights versus politically correct speech codes has become one of the hottest topics debated in the academic arena.

In the Sept. 4 issue of Editor and Publisher magazine, a column by Freedom Forum member Charles Overby attacked college journalism departments, accusing them of being too “soft” on First Amendment issues, including unpopular speech.

“(The First Amendment) was written specifically to protect the right of people to say whatever they want, no matter how unpopular or politically incorrect,” Overby’s column stated.

Overby stated that although unpopular speech is often “repugnant and irresponsible,” journalism and communications departments should be on the forefront in defending the right to speak in any context.

NIU’s journalism department certainly has its own opinion when it comes to defending First Amendment rights.

Richard Digby-Junger, assistant journalism professor, said the department should practice what it preaches—support of the First Amendment.

“We teach our students to pitch First Amendment rights, but we also let them know there is a line to what should be protected and what shouldn’t,” Digby-Junger said.

He said he uses the example of child pornography in his classes. Some might argue child pornography is a form of expression and should be protected by the First Amendment.

However, rational thinking would tell us that this kind of pornography is a form of child abuse and therefore, illegal and unprotected.

Digby-Junger said unpopular speech should be protected, even if hurtful.

He said speech codes have no place at a university, where people should interact as adults and be able to deal with the realities of the world, including unpopular speech.

“Universities are microcosms of society and unpopular speech is a sad, but true part of society that everyone has to deal wh,” he said.

Daniel Riffe, chair of the journalism department, agrees that all speech must be protected.

He said even though hurtful speech is wrong on a moral basis, he is a strong supporter of the speaker’s right to say hurtful things.

Riffe cited the turbulence of the 1960s as an example of the need for free speech.

“How different would the world be today if both protesters and supporters of the Vietnam War were not allowed to speak their mind? You could ask that question of any movement of the ’60s, including civil rights,” he said.

Riffe said he thought it was obvious that the First Amendment shaped society into what it is today.

When asked about the protesting of The Northern Star last spring, he said the Star was right to keep two columnists that many felt used insensitive speech on staff, instead of complying with protesters’ demands to fire them.

However, Riffe said the journalism department was right to stay out of the Star’s battle.

“The Star maintains their editorial autonomy. They also learn from their mistakes. The Star is not a professional newspaper. It is a learning experience,” he said.

Riffe said it was more instructive for the Star to pay the price of its mistakes and defend itself.

He said the journalism department did its part to support the Star behind closed doors. “The Star wouldn’t have learned from the experience if the journalism department came riding on white horses to defend the newspaper.”