We’ve all heard about them. Whether it’s a protest on a college campus, a Facebook post that might seem against our norm, or a politician with what we perceive as a whacked out view. Stated as such they might seem normal, but our reactions are becoming a bit out of line and I wonder if those statements and reactions might have an impact on our First Amendment rights. Hear me out.
When someone says they are for or against a particular policy, they have a right to say that. Others also have the right to disagree. Those disagreements should lead to conversations where we are all listening and learning from each other. It’s how we learn about what others think, and how we form new ideas.
What concerns me is when our reactions and disagreements cross the line from being rational conversations to very hurtful attacks and threats.
It also concerns me when companies or organizations overreact and that’s where I worry about our First Amendment right to free speech.
I really don’t care which bathroom people use. I think there are bigger things to worry about, like families not making enough to put food on the table or a roof over their heads. But when a local woman’s rational Facebook post about this issue is removed by the company as being against their community policy yet comments that threaten her life are allowed to remain, things have gone too far. When a car is vandalized because another person doesn’t like the bumper sticker on that car, things have gone too far. When college students demand the administration stop others from talking about various topics, things have gone too far.
As public relations professionals, it’s our job to prepare our clients and companies for these disagreements. We do our best to counsel leadership before something is said about the possible reactions and prepare statements. We are constantly listening so we understand both sides of arguments and provide thorough counsel. And it’s often our job to be in the hot seat when things don’t go as we might have thought they would.
But what I’m worried about is that the fear of retribution or consequences is beginning to keep many individuals and some companies from speaking out.
The fear is causing us to stop and think before we speak…a good thing, as long as we still speak. It’s when the fear of getting in an argument or being attacked by others overpowers our desire to share thoughts with others that we need to take a step back and see if the pendulum might have swung too far.
Going back to the college campus protests which have been around since the beginning of time. In the ‘60s there were regular anti-war demonstrations, but (for the most part) the students and their professors led conversations to help all students discuss and refine their beliefs. Today, college administrators seem more concerned about trigger words and keeping students safe than creating environments where divergent views mean learning takes place through understanding and discussion. Two articles on this subject have caught my eye recently and are valuable for us all.
- DePaul University president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M. who addresses recent student unrest in this letter to the campus community titled “Sensitivity and Discourse.”
- “What Went Wrong? Campus Unrest, Viewpoint Diversity, and Freedom of Speech” was written by Michael Shermer in eSkeptics.com of which he is the publisher.
I suggest all of us, but especially public relations practitioners, look at our organizations and make sure we’re listening to and collaborating with our constituency groups. Ensure our leadership understands the viewpoints of those who might not agree with them. Create communications plans to make sure all groups have a voice and are respectfully heard.
As individuals, it’s time we think a bit more before we open our mouths, but when we do we need to also make sure we are also listening and hearing, and that our minds remain open. We need to remember that words can hurt and try to choose them wisely.
Most of all we need to be thankful we have the right to say what we believe, and to protect that right.
Now, I have to worry about the ramifications of posting this on my blog and social media. I hope I can take the blows that may come my way.