Free speech advocate Ken Paulson to bring ‘unconventional approach’

Free speech advocate to bring ‘unconventional approach’ to discussion of free speech: Ken Paulson will speak at the Gordon JCC on Jan. 19

Only one in 50 Americans can name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, according to the Freedom Forum Institute. This statistic is part of why Ken Paulson dedicates his time to speaking nationally about the First Amendment and all that it entails.

Paulson, the director and founder of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, has taught about the First Amendment nationally for the past 25 years.

“Our overriding goal to have 330 million Americans treat the First Amendment with respect, and that, of course, is an insane goal,” Paulson said in a phone interview. “So I have to settle for conversations with groups about the importance of these five freedoms.”

Paulson, the former president and CEO of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, dean and professor emeritus of MTSU’s College and Media Entertainment and founder of “1 For All” — a national First Amendment campaign to improve free speech education for grades 1 to 12 — will speak at the Gordon Jewish Community Center on Jan. 19, 2023 at 12:15 p.m.

“I think it would be fun and rewarding to actually talk about what the First Amendment means and where it came from,” Paulson said of his speaking events. “I do that in a highly interactive and hopefully engaging manner.”

He said he will discuss modern-day free speech in regards to antisemitism as well as the history of the First Amendment at the January event. In the era of Kanye West’s antisemitic comments and Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter, free speech and its regulation is at the forefront of national controversy.

Some federal officials warn that an uptick of hate speech and disinformation about the Jewish community on Twitter unites extremists and thus will contribute to increased antisemitic violence in the coming months, according to an article by The Washington Post. Paulson said he does not think limiting freedom of speech is the solution.

“First of all, the way to curb hate crimes is to successfully prosecute [the perpetrators] of hate crimes,” Paulson said. “...It doesn’t matter if you think that antisemitic speech leads to antisemitic action because we have no alternative. There’s no middle ground for this. You either permit [the] government to limit speech or you don’t, and we should never as a nation consider that; that would be the destruction of our entire foundation.”

Restricting freedom of speech is dangerous to Paulson because he believes every American should have a right to say what they want to say. If the government limits the First Amendment, those in power get to decide what constitutes hate speech, Paulson said.

“You allow [the] government to limit hate speech in any way, people in power will be the ones defining what hate speech is,” Paulson said. “And I can guarantee you that there were people in Selma, Alabama, who thought when Martin Luther King [Jr.] called them racists and bigots, that was hateful speech. You cannot allow people in power to decide what's hateful and what isn't, so all hate speech has to be protected.”

Instead, Paulson said he recommends people call out antisemitism when they see or hear it, especially when it is expressed by a high-profile person.

“We should address it,” Paulson said. “We should address our outrage in a very visible and impactful manner. When a prominent performer, like Kanye West — Ye — posts a swastika on Twitter, there should be widespread condemnation along with a widespread determination never to buy or stream any of his music in the future. If everyone in the world decided they're not going to spend another dollar on a Ye concert, that would send a clear message about what speech is so horrific that it damages society as a whole.”

Boycotts are an effective alternative in addition to using one’s own First Amendment rights to counter hate speech. Paulson said the First Amendment is multi-faceted in this way in order to effectively help society advance, which he wants to illustrate to audiences who may not know the First Amendment’s full scope.

Paulson uses an interactive approach in some of his speaking events by quizzing the audience about their knowledge of the First Amendment. The interactive “game show” is called “Rights, Revolution and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Paulson said he also travels with a band that plays previously censored songs to build understanding and support for the First Amendment.

“An unconventional approach gets people to sign up,” Paulson said. “...That’s the kind of thing we do.”


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