Free speech provides comfort during COVID-19 pandemic
05-19-2020 05:39pm

Free speech provides comfort during COVID-19 pandemic

By Shelby Emmett

Usually when free speech makes headlines, civil liberty attorneys and advocates like me cringe. It’s not uncommon for people to hide behind the First Amendment, thinking the right to say terrible things should also shield them from social reprisal. Just this month, I saw the headline “Man with Swastika on Face Covering Spotted in Santee Grocery Store” in my news feed.

Defending the rights of all Americans includes those whose ideas makes us cringe. Protecting the speech we can’t stand is essential to protect the speech we like. Consider how governments like Syria, Pakistan, and Iran have effectively silenced political opposition, civil society activists, and human rights groups under the guise of cracking down on extremist speech.

Still, it can be tough, emotionally draining, and sometimes flat-out depressing. That’s especially the case in times of crisis like today, when increased fear and uncertainty combined with dehumanizing rhetoric from national figures can exacerbate instances of bigotry and hate.

Trying circumstances can also present opportunities for people to come together. When people feel as if they face a common challenge, differences and divisions begin to blur. That’s cause for optimism. First Amendment attorneys like me smile when we see people using their voice to stand together with their community. And today you don’t have to look far.

Here are just a few of the many examples of how Americans are lending their voices and ideas to provide comfort during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Churches Offer Drive-in Services

Churches across the country have found creative ways to both allow people to participate together in worship and protect public health. Baptist congregations in Georgia began offering drive-in services on Sunday mornings in April, giving their members the opportunity to gather in the same place while maintaining social distancing. As one pastor said last month, “Maybe it’s not the Easter Sunday service you would have wanted, but it’s the closest thing we can do.”

Virtual Poetry Share for Sexual Assault Survivors

In April, thousands of volunteers, advocates, mental health experts, and survivors came together to recognize Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. In Alexandria, Virginia, the sixth annual Poetry Share event took the form of a Facebook virtual “viewing party” this year—providing space for participants to listen to poems written by survivors and read by volunteers and staff in order to keep their confidentiality. We encourage you to hear these survivors’ stories and find out how you can help people suffering from trauma in your local community.

Researchers and Manufacturers Collaborate Online

Members of the scientific and manufacturing communities are finding new ways to meet the growing demand for information and medical supplies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through online collaboration—including open-sourcing designs for critical medical equipment like face shields and nasal swabs, and sharing medical data and scientific articles through more accessible channels—scientists, manufacturers, and even interested hobbyists are able to help one another overcome the unique challenges created by this crisis.

Rally around Local Restaurateur

In late April, the owner of a successful Chinese restaurant in Chesapeake, Virginia, received harassing comments and vandalism of her vehicle, related to her ethnic heritage. A woman in the community heard about the abuse and posted about it on her Facebook page, which spurred her neighbors to do a lot more than comment about the hate: they deluged the kitchen with takeout orders, left encouraging notes, and wrote uplifting messages in chalk on the parking lot. In fact, so many residents rallied around the restaurant that the owner and her husband were too busy to talk to the local press. As one resident explained, “When we see these kinds of things happen to people, we wrap them up in love. We lift them up, and we come together and we just help them and we love them through it.”

Dinosaur Donations

In Toronto, Canada, a mother and daughter decided to be a little silly and help protect members of their community by dressing up as dinosaurs and passing out face masks. (We are happy to report the dinosaurs followed CDC guidelines and were also in masks!) The duo not only performed a valuable service, but they put a smile on the faces of people they came across. They also stopped by a neighborhood that has become famous for using noisemakers to honor frontline workers.

Drive-by Art

Artists in New York found a creative way to safely bring art to their community with a drive-by art show. Drivers were able to maintain social distancing while enjoying works of art throughout the town. Although we may not be able to be together, we can still express ourselves and get creative about ways to bring that art to others.

Graduation at the Racetrack

Students across the country may not be able to cross the stage at a traditional graduation ceremony, but students from two schools in Florida will still have the chance to celebrate their accomplishments together. At the end of May, seniors from Flagler county will drive across the finish line at Daytona International Speedway with their families, where they will receive their diplomas before taking a victory lap.

Shelby Emmett is an attorney and program officer for free expression at the Charles Koch Institute.

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