On Free Speech

Much has been made in the last year or two regarding free speech in the United States. The United States is one of the few countries where the freedom of speech is codified in the constitution. It might surprise many Americans to know that Europeans do not enjoy the same latitude. For one example, in France, it is illegal to deny the Jewish holocaust.

However, in the United States, the right to free speech is also not clearly understood.

Many colleges and universities, most notably the University of California at Berkeley, have been in the news for their response to controversial speakers coming to their campuses. UC-Berkeley has invited then disinvited speakers across the spectrum, and in cases where they have not, there has sometimes been violent protest against the presence of these speakers.

I strongly disagree with violence of any kind in response to an individual speaker, but I certainly understand and support the right to protest. There are some in this discourse who do not believe the protest should not be occurring at all, particularly at colleges and universities, because they should be welcoming of diverse perspectives and thoughts.

Let's unpack this a little bit.

I am against the idea of "safe spaces" in academic or public discourse, particularly at colleges and universities. Education is about exposure to a diversity of ideas, and understanding these varying perspectives in order to determine the best path forward. There are many topics, both social and political, that are considered controversial and we gain nothing by denying or limiting our students' ability to discuss them.

I am also in favor of speakers not being invited in the first place, as a function of the free market, based on their well-known sociopolitical views that they have already expressed. Students are consumers. They pay tuition that funds all of these speakers, who do not appear for free. Moreover, speakers are validated by saying they spoke at a university; they will certainly use that information for self-promotion, and there is the implication that they were "invited" because of a favorable opinion for their views. As a student paying tuition, I would certainly feel I had the right to protest the decision to invite an individual whose views are already known., especially if they are only giving a speech and not participating in a debate. Many of those protested are well-known personalities, who are known for not just expressing their views, but for how they behave when expressing those views.

During the lead up to the marriage equality decision in 2015 in the United States, John Corvino, philosophy professor at Wayne State University, and Maggie Gallagher, formerly of the National Organization for Marriage, co-wrote a book regarding same sex marriage called Debating Same-Sex Marriage. They had participated in debates regarding the subject prior to the book's publishing, and also did promotional presentations across the country about the book and their differing views. I was familiar with and a fan of Dr. Corvino, but had had minimal exposure to Ms. Gallagher's views other than media appearances. I came away from their debates - and I stress debates - with a newfound respect for Ms. Gallagher's positions and motivations. I still disagree with her, but I now understood her assertions and goals. Most importantly, she did not spend time attacking Corvino or those who supported his positions - she discussed ideas, and critiqued Corvino's position rather than Corvino himself.

The concerns about denying controversial speakers the ability to express their views surround creating an echo chamber, where only so-called suitable topics are permitted. But having a controversial speaker simply give a speech is creating an echo chamber for that individual. They often come across as arrogant, and find it easy to slide into personal or unnecessary attacks on their opposition, who have no conduit to respond other than via protest - which is again criticized. I would advocate that we pursue debate, not one-sided conversation.

And I would further point out that this happens on both ends of the political spectrum. Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins have been protested and disinvited as well as Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro.

But this also leads into what free speech is and what it is not.
  • The freedom of speech allows one to say whatever one wishes, short of inciting violence or causing harm, such as shouting "fire!" in a crowded venue.
  • The freedom of speech allows the audience to respond to what has been expressed in any way they wish. This can mean boycott or other form of rejection.
  • Words do not need to be respected. Just as one has the ability to express whatever they wish, their audience can call bullshit and judge the speaker accordingly. The audience can identify bad ideas.
  • No platform has to be provided for one's speech. Say what you wish, but no television network, no newspaper, no other media outlet needs to communicate your words. No university needs to invite you to speak. And no justification is required for such rejection. It is not censorship if no one wants to listen to you.
  • No platform has to be provided to repeat one's self, and this is where I think the student protesters have a point. Those who are being protested would likely be accepted as guest speakers if their ideas were not well-known. If you already know what someone is going to say or defend, it is not limiting education or exposure to say "thanks, we know your spiel already." That is precisely why the protesters are there.
Full disclosure, I don't often support the presence of conservatives in education. By definition, I do not feel they add to the discourse, as they favor the status quo versus advancement; they very much want to stay in the box rather than think outside of it. However, I also feel we have gone off the rails in some areas of cultural discourse because of the focus on minutiae. We have lost sight of the forest because of the trees.

We need a reset across the board.

Not all speech is good speech. Not all speech is hate speech. We cannot determine these definitions based on personal feelings, but rather on some external evaluation in a factual way. Agreement does not mean good, and opposition does not mean hate. We are rapidly losing the ability to debate and discuss in constructive ways, if such an ability has not already been lost completely. We are passionate about many topics, as many decisions in these areas impact us personally and in how we will be able or unable to live our lives.

In the end, we have lost respect for each other. Many of the things we argue about would be non-issues if we simply had respect for each other. And this can't work unless it is universal.

On paper, the United States is a secular, democratic republic, which helps this approach of universal respect, but as any American can tell you, this is imperfect. We have many groups across the spectrum who wish to impose their views on others, including me as I write this in telling you how our society should behave. The key is finding a model to which we can all agree that provides the most good - in culture, in government, in economics - such that we can be united and safe.


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