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Don’t take your freedom for granted! What the Russian exchange students taught us about free speech

Do you feel comfortable expressing with impunity your opinion about our political leaders? Do you ever fear that you or your family could be punished for criticizing the government? The Vanguard learned about the implications of living in a country where the government can (and does) regulate the speech of its constituents while engaging Russian exchange students for our last issue’s Current Topics pages (“Can’t we all be friends?” and “From Russia with love,” Vol. 47, Issue 1).

Our former guests from Russia do not enjoy the right to free speech. Although their government purports to protect that right, Russians are routinely punished or threatened for criticizing Putin or the government. To prepare our feature, we asked the exchange students for their opinions of Trump and Putin and for their experience of the Russian media’s portrayal of America and the American media’s portrayal of Russia. Russian Teacher Joshua Walker could not have been more supportive of our conversations with the Russian students but warned us against printing any opinions of Putin that could be considered critical or subversive. Had any of the Russian students criticized their leader, and had we printed those opinions, Mr. Walker said, we could have put the students and their families at risk of negative consequences. Mr. Walker also explained that had students belonging to ethnic minorities criticized Putin, they could have faced more severe repercussions. 

When planning our interviews with the exchange students, many of us at The Vanguard did not realize the risk involved in Russians criticizing political leaders. We have never limited what we say about our elected officials because we thought it could get us in trouble with our government. Our comfort in speaking freely about elected leaders is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which protects our right to free speech, including a free press. Although we were intellectually aware that speech is monitored and regulated in Russia, the idea of not being able to criticize your leaders was just that to us: an idea. We wouldn’t have imagined that an article printed in an American newspaper—an article written by high school students and featuring the opinions of other high school students—could be cause for serious concern. To Russian citizens, however, controlled speech is more than just a notion; it is a reality that they have to navigate with caution.

Our understanding of the Russian exchange students’ predicament with respect to free speech can help illuminate the conversation about free speech in our own country and our own schools. Freedom of speech as described in the Bill of Rights protects speech in the public domain, ensuring that the U.S. government cannot regulate or control the speech of any citizen. Freedom of speech does not mean that everyone will feel comfortable voicing their opinions, nor does it mean that all ideas must be accepted or even acknowledged. Yet many in our country claim that our freedom of speech is in danger, especially in environments like college campuses. 

Feeling uncomfortable voicing your opinion in a certain setting does not constitute a lack of free speech; it is a misuse and misunderstanding of the term ‘free speech’ to conflate social pressures with authoritarian government. Whether individuals or private institutions should be suppressing the voices of those with unpopular or disturbing political beliefs is an entirely different conversation that does not concern the government regulation of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

Although we enjoy free speech in the U.S., it is important to monitor how our political leaders treat free speech. Just as we shouldn’t have taken our right to free speech for granted when engaging with Russian exchange students, we shouldn’t forget that the current president and his administration have shown signs of contempt for that same right. Vilifying the free press and suggesting professional athletes should lose their jobs for expressing unpatriotic feelings are cause for serious concern. Just recently, the president suggested news sources that don’t praise him sufficiently should lose credentials. We do not fear the repercussions of publishing critical information or opinions about our elected officials, but we should nonetheless be wary of government encroachment on our First Amendment rights.

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