Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrows, and – as it did here – inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation, we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.
Chief Justice Roberts in Snyder v. Phelps
Two aspects of the above quote strike a chord with me as a leader. The first sentence “Speech is powerful” reminds me that what I say – whether through oration, writing, text, tweet, video – will have an impact on the hearer. We learned in the Leadership Presence class to decide our intention before we speak and focus on that intention as we prepare so that our words will have the force of its intended impact. In the close context of the Educational Leadership program, it is easy to automatically consider that our intentions are moral and honorable when we speak.
However, that is not the case with all speech. As a leader, I have to remember that I cannot react to the pain caused by hurtful speech by “punishing the speaker”. This second aspect of the quote is formidable, particularly in this moment in the collective history of society. Dramatic and hyperbolic rhetoric designed to provoke an emotional response abounds in media today. There is an emotional maturity and restraint in putting aside one’s feelings of moral outrage to uphold the principles of the greater good of society. I believe that is what Chief Justice Roberts is referring to in this quote.
I recently read that Abraham Lincoln had a “dark side” fostered by traumatic childhood experiences that created in him a sense of inferiority and lack of self-worth (McIntosh & Rima, 1997). However, Lincoln managed to control the negative impact of his dark side even in the face of harsh criticisms of his leadership. He refused to return insult for injury or even engage in conflict in order to focus on the bigger picture for the good of the people.
It’s easy to tune out the opinions of those with whom I disagree and judge them right or wrong. It’s even easier to attack the character of those who say what I consider to be hateful, hurtful, and immoral words. However, as a leader, I have to be mindful that there are followers to whom I am accountable and for whom I provide a standard by my actions. I have to be willing to show how to engage in public discourse that makes room for opposing views, even those that are hurtful.
McIntosh, G. L. & Rima, Sr., S.D. (1997). Overcoming the dark side of leadership: The paradox of personal dysfunction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.