A Reflection on “A Conversation with Garrett Epps”

By Liam Carbutt, AU CAS

On Wednesday, October 17th, Professor Garrett Epps led a conversation about the complexities and burdens of free speech in the diverse and largely unequal society that we live in. Epps is a Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and a contributing editor for the Atlantic. He has written and taught about constitutional law and the structure of the Supreme Court for many years. Epps spoke at the Kay Spiritual Center, which was packed with students and faculty.

From the start, Professor Epps made it clear that he wanted the event to be a dialogue, not a lecture. Although he sat on stage throughout the event, he made a point to make time for questions from the audience at all times, even leaving the stage to approach students in the back whom he could not hear. Professor Epps facilitated the conversation in a way that allowed for a diversity of voices to rise up and challenge his ideas, which was the central focus of the conversation itself. Professor Epps made it clear that any discussion about free speech must take place on equal footing and he put this into practice in the way he was intentional about sharing the mic and listening to others throughout the event.

One of the central points that Professor Epps explored throughout the dialogue was the power that speech has to affect relationships within society. According to Epps, speech can be used for anything from inciting violence at rallies to systematically dehumanizing or marginalizing groups of people through mass media and propaganda. Alternatively, speech can also be used to create equity and build a more just society. Professor Epps emphasized that speech is a powerful instrument to change the attitudes and outlooks of listeners.

Additionally, Professor Epps asserted that both the context of the speech and the social position of the speaker are highly relevant to the power that speech ultimately holds. It is undeniable that some speakers are able to appeal to a larger audience with greater influence based on arbitrary characteristics like race, wealth, or high economic status.

Professor Epps cited several contemporary examples of the impact of social position and context on the power that speech holds, the most notable being Brett Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation to the Supreme Court despite sexual assault allegations and testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. In this case, he pointed out that Kavanaugh made an ethical appeal to his audience in the face of an incriminating testimony from a reliable source and he was able to use his speech to discredit Dr. Ford using nothing other than his social position.

Instances like Kavanaugh’s confirmation are unfortunately highly prevalent in our society and it is for this reason that analyses of speech must integrate context and the position of the speakers involved if they are to be effective, according to Professor Epps. Too often, the highly abstract nature of the law surrounding free speech allows discussions about the legality of speech to ignore context and social position. These discussions are removed from reality and they are often unethically manipulated by people in positions of power.

Without question, there are massive power imbalances in this country along lines of race, gender, sex, economic position, and ability, among many other factors. Power dynamics between these groups matter and they have a significant impact on the freedom of speech for citizens in this country. Professor Epps made it clear that people in positions of power have greater freedom in their speech than marginalized people, which must be considered when discussing the concept of freedom of speech in this country.

Professor Epps critiqued what he calls the “Triumphant” view of free speech, which claims that since speech is so free in the American political climate, it is constantly progressing and eliminating hateful and degrading speech. As a critique of this view, he presented his own “Tragic” view of free speech. The Tragic view suggests that we protect free speech in this country because the alternative, which is to give the racist institutions that this country is built on the power to limit speech, is far worse.

Professor Epps claimed that we let people use speech to do “civilized” battle with one another. We do so in the hope that this will allow us to resolve our differences before we take up arms against one another. We protect free speech because it does do harm, but a type of harm that we generally prefer to physical harm. In the Tragic view, we must protect free speech for all, even if it is hateful, because the costs of allowing institutional restrictions disproportionally harms marginalized people and arbitrarily benefits privileged people.

Thus, Professor Epps argued that all conversations about freedom of speech must also be conversations about equity. We cannot make progress and create a society where speech is truly free for all unless we talk about how to raise some voices up and curtail some of the power that people in positions of power hold over others. Ultimately, large power disparities do not lend to democratic discourse in a free society. If speech is to be free for all, equity must be established in this country. It is pointless to discuss free speech without integrating equity into the conversation.

Professor Epps seems very aware of the relevance of equity in dialogues about free speech and it is evident that he is conscious of his own power and privilege based on the way he stepped back and shared the floor during the discussion that he led. He provided tremendous insight about the relationship between conversations of freedom of speech and institutional inequality that I hope can shape the discourse about free speech at AU going forward.

Liam Carbutt is a first-year graduate student at American University studying philosophy and social policy in the Department of Philosophy & Religion’s BA/MA program. Liam works for the department as a coordinator for the Ethics Bowl, a competition hosted by American University for local high schools.

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