I had a few thoughts about free speech that I wanted to get out on a blog post here. These thoughts aren’t quite developed enough yet for a full-blown op-ed, but given that I had a rough time answering a question about free speech in my mock interview in class, I figured this might be a good space to explore some of these thoughts.
I work at a newspaper. While I’m not a “proper” journalist, what I do usually entails giving a platform to opinions and viewpoints that are interesting and deserve to be heard, and The Daily Texan is a decently big part of my life. So I’d like to think I know, first-and, why free speech is really important. The work that the press do is essential to democracy, and for speaking truth to power, and all that.
Within the past several years, though, I’ve noticed more politicians and academics — from the right, left, and center-left — criticize the fact that college students can’t seem to handle free speech anymore. The idea that students cannot handle perspectives that they don’t agree with fits in nicely with the overall stereotype of the soft, liberal, raised-on-the-participation-trophy millennial. Perhaps that’s why it’s difficult to go to any kind of talk nowadays without running into some kind of lamentation on how “kids these days” can’t seem to listen to perspectives that they don’t agree with.
This narrative is almost certainly shaped by the fact that college students have a lot of protests over speakers that come to campus. I’m not particularly interested in defending every single protest any college group has ever had over any speaker — that’s far too broad. But I am interested in the protests students have over white supremacists and neo-Nazis, because they seem to be popping up at a greater rate nowadays.
I think we can all agree that people from the alt-right/neo-Nazis have horrendous beliefs. Should they still be allowed to speak on campuses, or publish op-eds in student newspapers?
The most common answer, among conservatives and liberals, is yes — anything less would violate freedom of expression. There’s a legality aspect of this (for instance, public schools are bound under pretty strict laws that they cannot impede speech that comes from a student). But legality aside, most people who perceive freedom of speech to be under attack at college campuses would also say that bringing all kinds of speech — no matter how horrific — to light is good because then hate is in full view of everyone, and can be attacked and argued and publicly shamed by everyone. And that’s how progress happens.
But is that true? Does bringing hate speech (which, I know, there is no constitutional distinction between hate speech and free speech) to light actually work towards progress? Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with the sorts of things he says, empowered the alt-right movement to filter into the mainstream. Hate crime rates, especially against Muslim and LGBT people, rose. There was a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. It may have been reviled by the entirely of the nation, but the movement shows no signs of going away. It’s a force in politics, still. The “marketplace of ideas” is a great concept — but perhaps, just like a real marketplace, there are still people who have entrenched power and privileges, whose ideas can carry more weight and be more harmful.
It can be scary to be a woman or a person of color, on campus when you know that people like that are empowered. There was a white supremacy rally on the UT campus at the beginning of November. Students found out about it on Twitter, and weren’t given any official notification of it by the university until the next day morning. And in that email, the first thing President Fenves affirmed was the tight to free speech (and only later did he disavow the white supremacists). Those white supremacists weren’t a student group, so UT could kick them off campus — but what would have happened if they were affiliated somehow with the university? Would their rally have been okay, within UT’s commitment to “maintaining an inclusive environment for all who come here”?
I wish I had an easy, straightforward answer to all of these questions of free speech. As a journalist, as a citizen, I know free speech is vital. People should be able to express their points of view. But I don’t know if everyone should be allowed a platform.