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Guest Essay: Enough anonymous hate

As we embark on a new semester, a new year, a new government and an evolving nation, I wish to take a moment to ask all of us to think about speech and its consequences.

Iowa State University is a campus that holds at its core the values and principles of free speech that are rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution. Free speech, as we know, is not synonymous with the freedom to say anything at any time (for example shouting “fire” in a crowded theater). Additionally, several types of speech are not protected by the Constitution — including threats, incitement to violence, defamation and some hate speech.

But I ask us all to think for a moment upon a type of speech that has gained prevalence and some sense of legitimacy recently: anonymous speech, which may be free, but which has no integrity. In a past age, anonymous speech might have come in the form of unmarked letters — no return address and unsigned. Over the past year at ISU, it has taken a variety of forms, but most easily recognizable are retweets under a handle that does not identify the sender, drive-by verbal assaults from a vehicle and viewpoints posted on buildings anonymously in the middle of the night.

At the moment these anonymous comments or posts are sent, the issuer may feel a sense of power over the message’s recipients. Further reflection, however, brings the realization that none of these types of free speech requires the idea’s owner to take responsibility for his or her position on the issue. Anonymous and covert, they lack any real power and manifest instead a type of cowardice that so often accompanies intolerance. The message behind the message is that the sender has an opinion, but not the courage to own it.

Let us all understand that, while we have the freedom to speak in this country, and at this university, all freedoms exist within the boundaries of discipline (some of which we call laws). Freedom without discipline or boundaries is anarchy. In this country, and perhaps the world, boundaries for expression have eroded to the point of near invisibility: we can traverse a spectrum from A to Z, crescendo from mild disagreement to hate speech and threats in no time. To have true freedom of speech requires that we use our freedom with restraint, wisely, with discipline and maturity, and ultimately that we have the courage to own what we say.

In the best version of our university, we grant each other the unencumbered privilege to learn to the best of our individual abilities, free from harassment, prejudice, racism, sexism, hate, oppression or bigotry. That may well involve imposing boundaries upon ourselves, especially as regards anonymous messages, as we work and as we communicate with others, to ensure we do not encumber their privilege to learn. Spoken or shared anonymously, hateful words are cowardly, and our nation needs strong people who stake themselves openly and identifiably upon their ideas. In secret we rarely grow, we harbor ideas that may be stagnant and we present to the world our weaker selves.

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