You’re in the cafe, waiting for a coffee, when you hear a throwaway comment from the person in front of you. It may be homophobic, sexist or racist. This comment is offensive and ignorant, and you skim through all your options mentally. Should I say that’s not okay? Should I ignore it? Is it even my business? While you are working out the various outcomes and possible consequences of your actions, the person picks up their bagel and moves on. The moment is gone and you’ve turned into another silent bystander. This often happens, even in our very own Santai. And when you do say something, people shrug it off as a joke; tell you that you should “loosen up” and that they have “freedom of speech”. But what does that really mean? 

I find that freedom of speech is often used as an excuse to shut down the other person by invoking their ‘right’, but really, it’s not that simple. Freedom of speech does not automatically trump every other right. No right – not freedom of speech – exists separate from other rights. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that ‘[his] right to swing [his] fist ends where your nose begins,’ and this line perfectly demonstrates what some believe free speech should be about. All rights are interconnected, and different people will prioritize different rights over others depending on their perspectives and the context. In our example, the right to not face discrimination is in tension with the freedom of speech, and either can be prioritized.

The long-standing global debate about freedom of the press – which links directly to freedom of speech – surfaced again in France in January of 2015. The Charlie Hebdo magazine, notorious for blasphemous cartoons, published insulting cartoons of Mohammed, resulting in two Islamic men murdering the chief editor of the magazine (along with others). The world was in an uproar – and the protest known as Je Suis Charlie became a global phenomenon, promoting freedom of the press – some thinking of it as hate speech. This is still an unresolved issue, and whereas there is no doubt that the two men committed murder, we can still try to see the reasons behind their actions. Legally, the magazine did have the right to publish the cartoons, but whether it was worth exercising that right knowing that lives might be put in danger is debatable. Clearly, this is far more extreme than our seemingly unsolvable dilemma in Santai, but the basic principle is the same: freedom of speech is in tension with other human rights. 

Let’s shift our focus to another example and look at the recent school shooting in Florida. On February 15th, 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz walked into the high school from which he was expelled, carrying legally-bought guns, and proceeded to open fire, killing 17 people and injuring many more. It is a commonly held belief that Cruz had the right to bear arms; while others believe that the basic human right to life outweighs that right. In response to the anti-gun protests, President Donald Trump suggested that we arm teachers too. Is this suggestion prioritizing the right to bear arms over the fundamental right to life? This issue is, at heart, the same as the previous one; which rights should take precedence? The answer will differ depending on who you ask, and it is clear that people still feel strongly towards both the gun policy and freedom of speech debates. Bringing this discussion back to UWC, we can see that our innocent little Santai dilemma does not seem so abstract anymore – it is literally a matter of life and death.

We have still not resolved the issue of prioritizing rights. In Santai, there are situations where we can see this controversy develop. You can either say nothing or say something. If you say something you end up with an argument or an apology. If nothing is said, you are implicitly placing one right above the other. Perhaps freedom of speech is the most valuable right, but there is no clear, universal answer as to which rights take priority, and there probably never will be. No wonder you can’t think of a response to the comments in the queue. So before you go to get your next coffee in Santai, it’s worth thinking about your own priorities when you can’t have two things you value at the same time.