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How Dangerous is Free Speech?

We live in a society in which the freedom to express one’s opinions is increasingly being challenged. Given our democracy, its history, and the principles upon which it was founded, protection of free speech should be the priority in all cases where the right to express an opinion is called into question. Protection of the speaker’s rights must come before protection of the feelings of those who listen to such speech. Considerations of public protection must require substantial evidence of plausible threat to the safety of citizens before they are allowed to be the basis for restricting or intimidating free expression.

Laws related to free speech are concerned mostly with protection from government interference in speech that is critical of or  antagonistic to the government’s programs, its philosophy, or its own words. However, universities, which, if they are public, are extensions of government, may enact policies, which while not laws, can have the same effect as laws do on students’ rights. Many of these policies, labeled as anti-hate speech or anti-harassment policies prohibit speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. But, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.” In fact in numerous cases, federal courts have ruled that speech codes enacted by public universities violated students’ free speech rights.

The University of California has been one of the leaders among public universities in adopting measures that seek to protect students from statements that are deliberately racist or could be construed as such. The Daily Beast highlighted some of the more extreme of these measures, such as cautioning faculty not to use phrases such as “America is a melting pot,” or “There is only one race—the human race,” because they deny a person the dignity of identifying with his or her own race or ethnic group. Even “America is the land of opportunity” was labeled as having a racist component since it was supposed to imply that “People of color are lazy and/or incompetent and need to work harder.”

The above examples would seem comical if they did not represent a trend across campuses and, indeed across the country in which a) any speech that offends demands an apology if not a prohibition and punishment, and b) refusing to allow those whose opinions you find offensive or abhorrent is being used as a protest tactic.

Last August, Black Lives Matter activists wrested a microphone from Bernie Sanders as he began to address a crowd in Seattle. They spoke briefly to the crowd, which did not receive them well, and refused to return the mike. Sanders left the event without completing his speech. The action served to bring the Black Lives Matter group more into the spotlight and even got Sanders to sit down with them and discuss their issues. But what about the rights of those who came to hear Sanders speech? And what about Sanders own right to speak? Do the ends justify the means in this case? Many progressive activists, even some who support Sanders’ bid for the presidency, celebrated the Black Lives Matter action. I did not.

I ordinarily support nonviolent protests. Passive or even active resistance that may violate a law but does not remove someone else’s rights is OK by me. What the activists did in Seattle was to use force to elevate their right to speak above Sanders’. He was forced either into asking officials to forcibly remove the demonstrators or he needed to walk away, which he did. Politically, Sanders did the right thing, as I think he did by meeting with representatives from the group afterward to better understand their issues. But the right to speak without interference is a sacred one in America and in this case it was lost. What should the Black Lives Matter people have done if they felt they were not being given a forum to express their views? They could have asked to speak at his rally, held their own rally, brought signs to Sanders’ rally, passed out leaflets to the crowd, demonstrated in front of the Sanders campaign headquarters—anything that did not rob Sanders of his right to address the crowd in Seattle.

Another demonstration, celebrated by many progressive activists, occurred in Chicago where crowds of anti-Trump demonstrators attended a Donald Trump rally on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the days prior to the rally, both students and faculty at the university had pleaded to cancel Trump’s appearance on their campus because, as they said in a letter to their administration, “the Trump rally is an anathema to the mission of U.I.C.” Inside the arena, protesters argued with Trump supporters as they did outside in the line snaking into the arena. A few physical clashes took place. The candidate called off the rally because he was afraid that violence would occur. When violence did occur between protesters and supporters, Trump was blamed for it because of his previous comments seeming to approve violence used against those who disrupted his rallies.

How can the expression of opinions, even ones that many find distasteful, even harmful, be “anathema to the mission” of a university, in which the free discussion of ideas and opinions should be one of its main purposes? I believe the faculty of UIC (the University of Illinois at Chicago, which I attended on a fellowship), were mistaken in their belief that voicing values that the majority of the university’s students, faculty and administration abhor, should not be allowed on their campus. A university’s mission should be to generate informed discussion, not to silence points of view.

Silencing voices that do not represent the dominant values of a university has become a popular form of protest at many private and public universities. In a well-publicized instance, students and faculty at Rutgers University protested against former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking at their commencement because she had been in favor of the Iraq war and worked for George Bush. She decided not to speak.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education listed 212 attempted “disinvitations” of campus speakers that occurred across the U.S. from 2000-2014. Seventy-six of these resulted in either the college canceling the speaker’s engagement or the speaker withdrawing in the face of such protest. Another 12 speakers were not allowed to complete their speech because of the actions of protesters at their event. The majority of those targeted for disinvitation have been conservatives or people associated with organizations the left opposes (e.g. the International Monetary Fund, the state of Israel), but they have also included an LBGT activist, a female Muslim who has led a campaign against genital mutilation, a famous atheist, hip-hop artist Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, Carol Spinney, the voice of Big Bird and Oscar on Sesame Street and Fred (“Mister”) Rogers. Leading the list of disinvitees are George W. Bush (6 disinvites), Condoleezza Rice (4), Ann Coulter (3), and Ben Carson (3), all conservatives, but also Ward Churchill (4 disinvites) the University of Colorado Ethnic Studies professor and Native American activist who was terminated from his position at his university after calling some of the victims of 9/11 “little Eichmann’s” because of their role in what he called the U.S “ongoing genocidal imperialism.”

Students and faculty have argued that they have a right to choose who speaks at their schools. But in their minds, this right seems to extend only to the majority and not to those students and faculty who favor a point of view that is in the minority on their campus. Again, it seems to me that, universities being a strong bastion of the free exchange of ideas, deliberately restricting those ideas to ones that the majority favor is inimical to the purpose of providing a broad education.

The issue of free speech on campus is an old one. It was an issue in the fifties when professors were persecuted for leaning toward Communism; it was an issue in the sixties when students wanted to protest against the war in Vietnam; it was an issue when students of color tried to gain a voice on campus and uncloak university racism. Now it is an issue when speakers who have supported positions different from the majority of students and faculty try to have their voices heard. But in some respects it has always been the same issue: in an institution dedicated to opening minds to the varied knowledge that is available within the world, is it legitimate for a university to limit that knowledge to only what its students and faculty approve? I don’t think it is. In fact, I think it is a university’s obligation to do just the opposite: to do everything within its power to guarantee that all voices and ideas have a chance to be heard within its walls, so that students learn not to fear or suppress ideas, but to study them and challenge them. I also think that, even when the issue is free speech off of a university campus, “shutting down” a speaker through protest is wrong. It is a cowardly way of addressing ideas and opinions you dislike, instead of challenging those ideas and opinions with ones of your own.

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