Feminism vs. the First Amendment

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On Tuesday, Sept. 19, Joanna Williams, British author, academic and editor of the online magazine “Spiked,” pitted feminism against free speech with one central question: Can we have both and does limiting hate speech also limit free speech?

This is not to say that hate speech should be encouraged, but the broader the guidelines for such regulations, the more it can be interpreted to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of American citizens.

Williams began her speech by explaining where she came from. Being a part of both a young communist club at university and a feminist, she strongly believes in not limiting speech. Her dilemma began when she came to the startling realization that people, particularly women, were willing to give up their freedom of speech on the grounds of riding hate speech.

“It is easy to think … that to be a feminist or even to be a woman, is to oppose free speech,” Williams said, speaking not only of the shifts she’s seen in feminism but her interactions with feminism over time. She cited a survey on British campuses where only about 33 percent of men believed in having no restrictions of free speech whereas only 22 percent of women felt the same way.

She also engaged audiences with the task of the defining feminism. She spoke of her younger years, back in the 80s, when feminism was being filled with power and being granted the same treatment even if it was not beneficial to women. She then looked at her perception of today’s feminism which was significantly weaker.

Believing in a foundational shift in feminism, she thinks back to what feminism was like at its best: a radical idea of liberating women and a campaign against women having special privileges. Today, the impact has “brought about a change from objectivity to subjectivity.”

She stated that the current version of feminism teaches women to be suspicious of free speech and that women are portrayed more and more often as victims. As a result, regulation of speech is often a solution.

“Censorship is not something to be opposed,” Williams said, but it is something to be used sparingly and specifically.

She continued to push toward this idea of feminism treating women as more fragile than ever and, as a result, demanding more legal regulations. This begged the question, is that right? And perhaps more importantly to people of the U.S., is that constitutional?

There are laws in Britain that regulate free speech on university campuses. Williams cited the banning of the song “Blurred lines” by Robin Thicke at the university she works at because it supports rape culture.

The talk was put on by the Northern Plains Ethics Institute with help from college republicans. Williams’ new book “Women vs. Feminism” looks further into some of these issues.

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