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Nation's "Free Speech Principle" is Threatened in This Election Year, Opines Prof. Jeff McCall '76

April 12, 2016

"The inflammatory rhetoric, protests and disruption of political rallies in this election year have raised questions about how the First Amendment protections of free speech and assembly fit into the process," writes Jeffrey M. McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University, in a newspaper op-ed. "The short answer is that the First Amendment has little to do with controlling the rough-and-tumble world of politics. The First Amendment begins with the words, 'Congress shall make no law.' Thus, as long as the government is not restricting political speech, the arena is left to the control of sociocultural forces."

Dr. McCall stresses, "There is a difference between the constitutional rights of the First Amendment, which keeps the government from shutting people up, and the concept of free speech in a society. That concept hinges on a societal respect for free expression. Sadly, respect for the free flow of ideas is lacking in many venues today, including political campaigns, college campuses, social media and so on. Ideologues and demagogues seek to shut up other people by turning up the volume, savage insults and even physical disruption. Indeed, there are few free speech absolutists who are content to let everybody have their say."

The professor, who authored Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences, observes, "When GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump canceled his Chicago rally, his First Amendment rights weren’t violated, as he and some of his supporters claimed. The concept of free speech, however, was turned on its ear. Even though he didn’t deliver his message in the planned venue on that night, it wasn’t the government that prevented Trump from speaking. His message was delivered instead to an even wider audience that night as he did live interviews on all three cable news channels. And he held other rallies on subsequent days. Thus, he wasn’t silenced."

McCall elaborates on "misconceptions" Americans have about free speech and concludes, "Civilized societies thrive when mutual interdependence allows citizens to debate freely and fairly. Societies that can’t recognize the basic human dignity that comes with free expression degenerate into chaos and oppression. The First Amendment, lofty as it is, can’t force our society into enlightenment. Backward societies, as history shows, silence speech, shout opponents down and create physical disruptions to stifle rational dialogue. The 2016 election year is testing whether America can support a free speech principle. Early returns are not encouraging."

Access the complete essay, which is being published by a number of newspapers, including Florida's Suncoast News.

A former journalist, Jeff McCall is a 1976 graduate of DePauw and serves as faculty adviser to student radio station WGRE. He is frequently quoted in national publications in stories covering media matters. Last week, he discussed the finale of American Idol with both the Los Angeles Times and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  The latter piece can be heard below.

Source: Suncoast News (Fla.)

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