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Power of being offended has limits

But there's a difference between the great struggles that eventually changed those practices, and some of the civil-rights and anti-discrimination efforts that are ongoing today.

But there's a difference between the great struggles that eventually changed those practices, and some of the civil-rights and anti-discrimination efforts that are ongoing today.

It is this: While successes in the earlier struggles could be tracked in the physical world-women pulling the voting lever for the first time, Jim Crow signs coming down across the South-modern progress is much harder to measure, because so many of the conflicts are playing out inside people's heads.

That's a big reason why progress, to many, seems to have stalled: because many of the "crimes" that remain are less matters of fact than of opinion. UND's Fighting Sioux nickname is a perfect example: Many people said they were offended by it. Many others said they weren't.

Who was right? Well, both sides were, in their own minds. But America's history of racism and discrimination imbues one side in these arguments with a moral and political power that the other side lacks.

So, as every North Dakotan knows, the nickname was changed. The winning side had said they were offended; and ultimately, the losing side couldn't prove that the winners were wrong.

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After all, who can prove that another person didn't take offense?

Now, this is where the First Amendment comes in.

Because as Olivia Alperstein shows in her column on this page, it's awfully easy to abuse the power that America now vests in this irrefutable claim of taking offense.

In her column, Alperstein equates the smearing of a swastika on a bathroom wall with, among other things, a conservative op-ed in her campus newspaper. Both are offensive, and therefore, both are hate speech and should be banned or otherwise controlled, she seems to suggest.

The First Amendment takes a statement like that and says, "This far, but no farther." For in reality, Nazi graffiti and a newspaper column are not the same thing. The first is criminal vandalism.

The second is speech-pure, simple and constitutionally protected.

True, the speech in the column may be offensive to some. But being offended is not the same as being harmed, even in matters as sensitive as gender and race.

That's why, as the University of Chicago's Freedom of Expression Committee reported in 2014, "it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive."

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America can and will reform any lingering discriminatory rules. But it'll never eliminate the sting of being offended; that's a goal toward which, to all Americans' great good fortune, "Congress shall make no law."

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