Freedom of speech is one of the United States’ fundamental rights, and in being a basic American value so important and inherent to the practice of democracy, it can also be extremely frustrating and inconvenient in daily practice.
For instance, the Los Angeles Times, Inside Higher Education and other news outlets have recently reported on controversy generated over anti-gay speech in everything from wedding cakes to fliers from on-campus student organizations.
Part of the confusion is what exactly constitutes hate speech, and the complicated nature of free speech makes it difficult for Americans to decide what they wish to tolerate. To many, denying a homosexual couple the right to purchase a good — a wedding cake in a recent L.A. Times column — is a blatant display of bigotry that harkens back to segregation, when African-Americans could only purchase or use certain goods and services.
At the same time, though intolerance is frustrating, there is an argument that any infringement upon freedom of speech can be a slippery slope toward full control over which ideas are correct and permissible.
In other words, if the U.S. wishes to have true freedom of speech, that implies a certain element of misunderstanding.
For example, the wedding cake controversy reported in the L.A. Times surrounds a Denver baker who refused to make what she deemed a homophobic cake, only to have the customer file a religious-discrimination complaint. As the columnist suggested, freedom of speech can go both ways, especially since it might be seen as discriminatory for a homophobic baker not to sell a designed cake to a gay couple.
Freedom of speech should, then, extend to what is law. If gay marriage is legal in a state, that means all the trappings of marriage — photography, cakes and the works — should also be equally available as goods for a homosexual couple as they are to a heterosexual couple.
Perhaps a decent middle ground in this situation would be, as the L.A. Times suggested, a generic option for bakers who feel creating the product interferes with their religious convictions, as a baker could make a cake with no wording or outward sign of sexuality. Still, this would then leave the gay couple’s right to express their legal marriage in the dark.
There is no simple answer until the country does some soul-searching to decide what is most important in regard to freedom of speech. Obviously, religion plays a large and meaningful role in U.S. politics and in many Americans’ lives, and freedom of religion, like freedom of speech, is a fundamental right.
However, when the two clash, the U.S. is confronted with the choice of having a more secular society or one that favors religious expression. There is no easy answer, but perhaps the best way would be to recognize as many different opinions as possible, even if they are not accepted and cause offense. After all, democracy is built on variety.
Chelsea Mulligan is a freshman majoring in international studies.