Free speech, Fighting Words, and Violence

Conversation Guide

Some Americans feel violated by flag burning; some by racist rallies. As extremist groups use violence to gain media attention, most Americans oppose the use of violence. “Fighting words” against individuals in public are not protected free speech (see 1942 SCOTUS decision), but the definition of “fighting words” is unclear and has led to inconsistent court decisions (Wikipedia). Should the government restrict the freedoms of speech and assembly of any groups or individuals, and if so, under what circumstances? Is too much tolerance dangerous, or is giving an authority the power to restrict freedom of speech and assembly even more dangerous?

Background Information:

While you don't need to be an expert on this topic, sometimes people want background information. Our partner, AllSides, has prepared a variety of articles reflecting multiple sides of this topic.

Let's Get Started!

This Living Room Conversation flows through five rounds of questions and a closing. Some rounds ask you to answer each question. Others feature multiple questions that serve as conversation starters — you need only respond to the one or two you find most interesting.

Before you Begin...

Please go over the Conversation Agreements with your participants.

ONE: Why are we here?

What interested you or drew you to this topic?

TWO: Your core values

Answer one or more of the following:

  • What sense of purpose or duty guides you in life? What is your mission statement?
  • What would your best friend say about who you are and what makes you tick?
  • What are your hopes and concerns for your community and/or the country, now and long-term?
THREE:

Free speech, Fighting Words, and Violence

Remember that the goal of this Living Room Conversation is for each participant to listen to and learn about the different opinions within the group to see where you might share interests, intentions, and goals.

Answer one or more of the following:

  • How do we protect free speech and ensure public safety despite ongoing threats of violence?
  • Have you had a personal experience where free speech was inhibited? Or have you ever felt harmed by the speech of others?
  • How do we decide what our collective, social morality is? What is the federal  government’s role?
  • How do we allow for nuanced beliefs within each larger group without labeling everyone in the group as bigots or zealots?
  • How do we make space for honest yet nuanced discussion in a public space?

FOUR: Reflection

Answer one or more of the following:

  • In one sentence, share what was most meaningful or valuable to you in the experience of this Living Room Conversation?
  • What new understanding or common ground did you find within this topic?
  • Has this conversation changed your perception of anyone in this group, including yourself?

FIVE: Accomplishment and moving forward

Answer both of the following questions:

  • Name one important thing that was accomplished here.
  • Is there a next step you would like to take based upon the conversation you just had?

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