In one sense, free speech is the most free it’s ever been. For better and for worse, social media and other technologies have brought about a great democratization of news and information, and never in the history of mankind has it been so easy for Joe Average from Anytown, U.S.A. to broadcast his words and opinions to an audience of thousands, if not millions. From the virtual podiums of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, or generic internet celebrity status, just about anyone can hold a megaphone loud enough to spark a national conversation, with essentially no educational, vocational, or intellectual requirements to do so. This has increasingly left us grappling with a new question: if anyone can be heard by everyone, who should be?
A prime example of this question was on display a few months ago in a flare-up between American basketball star LeBron James and Fox News personality Laura Ingraham. In an interview with ESPN that covered various topics, James discussed some of his own political opinions and in particular offered a very negative opinion of President Donald Trump. Ingraham gave a scathing response to James’ comments on her show, famously saying: “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball. Keep the political comments to yourselves … Shut up and dribble.”
This controversy quickly devolved into a standard right-vs-left foodfight, with pretty much everyone taking the side they already agreed with before the incident happened. This is unfortunate, and I believe we lost a prime opportunity to have a very important national conversation about how we decide whose opinions are worth spreading.
On the one hand, Ingraham is correct that James has no special political credentials. Like anyone else, he has the right to form his own opinions and beliefs based on his experiences; but why should those opinions be broadcast to millions of people and be taken any more seriously than anyone else’s? To carry this question to an extreme, should sports personalities be asked to resolve complex foreign policy disputes (looking at you, Dennis Rodman) or publicly give medical advice? If extensive personal experience on a given subject is our criteria to make someone’s opinion shareable, then LeBron James is probably not an up-and-coming political commentator.
But on the other hand, why shouldn’t James be allowed to offer his opinions? He has the right to free speech; that right is not taken away simply because there are many people listening. And what threshold would James have to meet before Ingraham would be okay with him discussing his politics? A college degree in political science, perhaps, or experience in an elected office? Many critics were quick to point out that Ingraham and other Fox News commentators often discuss political issues on-air with guests whose political resumes essentially match LeBron’s. If there is some level of knowledge or experience that is requisite to allow a person to speak into a microphone, then everyone ought to be held to that standard equally.
There is not an easy answer here. As previously stated, I believe this is a national conversation that needs to happen, as we decide who is worth broadcasting and who is worth listening to.
But in the meantime, I would invite you, dear reader, to at least pick a standard you are comfortable with, and stick to it. Hold all speakers and new information you receive to that same standard. Perhaps you will choose only to listen to public/internet figures who have a college degree, or who have experience working in a field, or who are above the age of 18. Perhaps you will decide that everyone should at least be heard out, no matter how crazy they sound. Or perhaps you will choose only to listen to people you already agree with– that’s fine if you want, but at least be honest with yourself about why you are choosing to ignore other voices.
Free speech is a great power, but it is also a great responsibility. It is my hope that in this age of new technology and media, we will learn to be more responsible broadcasters and more responsible listeners, and that we can all hold one another to fair and consistent standards as we contribute to the ever-louder marketplace of ideas.
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