Though its purpose is to convey people safely to and from the Powerhouse, the pedestrian bridge over Pleasant Street has become something of a lightning rod for free speech.
Let’s make one thing clear up-front. Beloit College is a private institution of higher learning, not a government facility, and therefore has leeway on speech issues. After all, the First Amendment (see text at the top of this page) says “Congress shall make no law …” It does not say private institutions shall make no policies.
For weeks large signs saying “Black Lives Matter” had been attached to the high-visibility bridge. Then, following complaints suggesting those banners did not comply with city sign ordinances, they were removed. The large signs now are affixed to a campus building. Meanwhile, student groups began putting up smaller posters with BLM messages on the bridge.
Then somebody slipped in and hung a Confederate flag on the bridge.
Beloit College removed the flag, calling its placement “an egregious affront to Beloit College values.” The statement said the college condemns “this hate act in the strongest terms” and vowed an investigation.
The situation demonstrates that any society which embraces free speech as a fundamental building block of liberty is bound to encounter controversy. The Black Lives Matter movement has its supporters and its critics. The Confederate flag is a hate symbol for many and something else for others.
Beloit College, as a private institution, can police the content of symbols and messages on its property. At the same time, colleges themselves have become controversial across America for the perception of imposing a standard that some people’s views (liberal) are welcome and others (conservative) are not. Readers may remember, not long ago, when a conservative campus speaker was unable to take the stage at Beloit College because of raucous disruptions deemed potentially dangerous.
A little shop talk seems appropriate. As a newspaper we, too, are a private institution. We are not an arm of government. The First Amendment guarantees the right of the press to cover the news as it sees fit without needing a by-your-leave from any political power. In doing so we attempt to walk a tight line between granting maximum exposure for diverging viewpoints while trying to maintain civil and respectful discourse. If we determine a comment, perhaps in a letter to the editor, is outside the bounds of civility and choose not to publish it, that’s not censorship -- it’s constitutionally protected editorial judgment.
Still, we’re well aware our decisions can be controversial. And we sometimes cringe when we allow content to appear we know will offend others. But our standards are based on civility, a reasonable connection to fact colored by opinion, and pertinence to public interest and the times. It's not our role to police people's opinions.
There’s always push and pull involved in American free speech. America, unlike other countries, has rejected the idea of outlawing certain unpopular opinions or, to use the phrase of the day, hate speech. In places like Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, Australia and elsewhere speech deemed hateful by the government has been criminalized. The United States has resisted -- indeed, the Supreme Court has ruled against -- going down that road.
So while this newspaper does not condone hate speech, it is an unyielding believer in the widest possible interpretation of free speech.
There’s no guarantee against being offended to be found in the First Amendment.
Always remember that popular speech needs no First Amendment protections. The true test of the First Amendment is tolerance for unpopular speech.
The First Amendment reflects faith in the people’s ability to sort through a cacophony of competing voices.
Difficult as it can be at times, that’s the right American value to embrace.
A country that fears words, ideas and symbols will be a country that views liberty as subservient to the political winds of the day. We’re stronger than that.
William R. Barth is the Editor of the Beloit Daily News.