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Free Speech: Is It Fine to Say Something Offensive?

West Fargo High School journalism teacher Jeremy Murphy talks with senior Elizabeth Ratchenski, left, during a publications class on Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, in West Fargo, N.D. Journalism students returning to West Fargo and other North Dakota public schools last year were able to do their jobs at high school and college newspapers with stronger free-speech protections under state law. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)
Free Speech: Is It Fine to Say Something Offensive?
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Last year, an American research group asked people in 38 countries for their opinions about free speech.

What the researchers discovered may surprise you. They found that people in the United States are the most accepting of free speech, even when the comments are critical of their own religious beliefs.

The Pew Research Center completed the opinion survey. Its researchers said the findings are timely.

They noted that some college officials are debating whether to set up “safe spaces,” or “trigger warnings,” so students can avoid discussions they might finding troubling.

A safe place is a place where students can feel at ease discussing concerns without being judged or criticized. A trigger warning is when a teacher warns that a class discussion or reading might be troubling to some students.

Protests by Athletes

There has been debate in recent weeks about athletes who refuse to stand for the U.S. national anthem to protest racial injustice. Some Americans say athletes should be free to express their concerns about racial injustice. But others say everyone should show respect for the country’s national anthem.

The Pew Research Center said its 2015 survey found that 71 percent of Americans said “people can say what they want.” Sixty-seven percent said that the media can report the news freely.

Pew used its findings to create measures of free expression for all 38 nations it surveyed.

It said the free expression index in the United States is 5.73. That was the highest among the 38 nations in the study.

Pew said the 2nd highest index was Poland, at 5.66, followed by Spain, Mexico, Venezuela and Canada. All these countries have a free expression index of 5.0 or higher, it said.

Countries with Low Free Press Scores

The lowest free expression indexes were in Senegal, at 2.06; Jordan, 2.52; Pakistan, 2.78; Burkina Faso, 2.94; and Vietnam, 2.96.

In the United States, Pew found that 40 percent of Millennials believe the government should protect minority groups against offensive statements. They said the government should take action to stop people from making statements that the minorities consider offensive.

For the study, Pew defined Millennials as people born after 1980.

The percentages of people who say the government should stop offensive statements is lower for older Americans, the group said.

In July, a Pew report found 59 percent of Americans agree that “too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use.” It found a lower percentage, 39 percent, agree that “people need to be more careful about the language they use to avoid offending people with different backgrounds.”

A group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education opposes moves to limit free speech on college campuses. Nico Perrino speaks for the foundation.

Staffers for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education meet in Philadelphia.
Staffers for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education meet in Philadelphia.

“American citizens have a long tradition of meeting speech they find offensive with more speech, not censorship,” he said.

But Perrino is troubled by efforts to limit free speech at some colleges.

“This is a concerning development,” he said. Over the years, he noted, students have been among the strongest supporters of free speech.

Some Subjects Trigger Troubling Responses

But there is support for safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect students from material or opinions they might find troubling.

A University of Chicago student recently wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times newspaper.

The student, Sophie Downes, expressed opposition to the university’s decision to stop trigger warnings and safe spaces. A professor who provides a trigger warning can help students get ready emotionally to deal with difficult subjects, she wrote.

Downes said the political debate in the United States lately “has become pretty ugly, so it’s not surprising that students are looking for places to have civil discussions.”

At some schools, supporters of trigger warnings say that a student who has been physically attacked might suffer emotional harm by a talk that includes violent language.

This year, the University of Chicago wrote a letter to its new students, saying it will not cancel speakers who might express opinions that some students might find troubling.

The letter said the university wants students “to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn without fear of censorship."

I’m Bruce Alpert.

Alpert reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section and share your views on our Facebook Page.


Words in this Story

trigger -- n. something that causes something else to happen -- for example, a subject that requires a professor to warn students that some might find the discussion troubling

comfortable -- adj. not causing any unpleasant or troubling feelings

athlete -- n. a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength

national anthem -- n. a song that praises a particular country and that is officially accepted as the country's song

survey -- n. an activity in which many people are asked a question or a series of questions in order to gather information about what most people do or think about something

index -- n. a number that shows how something is changing or performing

ugly - adj. unpleasant to hear

challenge -- v. to say or show that (something) may not be true, correct, or legal