Historical precedent involving racial mistreatment should not be grounds for restricting the speech of others. Unless there is unequivocal certainty that violence will break out, the line for state restrictions is rather fine. In a recent piece for “The New York Review of Books,” David Cole acknowledges the multifaceted arguments concerning freedom of speech. Using the events at Charlottesville and their forthcoming responses—including speech as offensive as divisive, Cole communicates that speech is seldom atop an equal playing field. He argues that crossing this line opens the floodgates for government regulation of individuals’ constitutional rights.
“There is no doubt that Donald Trump’s appeals to white supremacists after Charlottesville have emboldened many racists,” Cole argues. “But at least in the public arena, none of these unfortunate truths supports authorizing the state to suppress speech that advocates ideas antithetical to egalitarian values.”
When white nationalists took their protests to Boston following the events in Charlottesville, they weren’t met with bans or restrictions but, to put it bluntly, more speech. This is not the climate of many college campuses. While speech isn’t sanctioned, collegiate lines differ from legal ones.
The behavior of college students at Middlebury College last spring regarding a speech by Charles Murray turned violent when over 60 students were reprimanded by campus security after leaving professor Alison Sanger with a concussion.
Similar behavior took place at Evergreen State College, only this time, instead of attacking a speaker, students targeted a professor. Bret Weinstein, a self-identifying progressive and professor of evolutionary biology, voiced objections to Evergreen’s “Day of Absence,” an annual tradition at the school. This year, it would be the white students and scholars that would be asked to leave the campus for the day. Weinstein outlined his views on the matter for the Wall Street Journal. His objections were not to the day itself, but to the role reversal behind the long-standing tradition, one that dates back to the 1970s. Weinstein was protesting the institutional implementation of forced segregation. Instead of being touted as a champion of change, he was branded a white supremacist that encourages the speech of neo-Nazis.
None of these issues are limited to these universities. Chaotic incidents have occurred at Claremont McKenna, Berkeley and elsewhere. Simply put, students on college campuses have grabbed the free speech microphone from those who disagree with them politically. What has historically been a right for all students has, for some, turned into an opportunity for students to exercise their right to take away the rights of others.
When Vice covered the incident at Evergreen, one of the students interviewed, Hadley, discussed the campus climate at Evergreen. “Although Bret has not said go and attack these students, go and threaten these students, that has been the result of his actions…I don’t think that should be protected by free speech,” Hadley said. However, just because students like Hadley disagree with certain opinions, doesn’t give her or anyone else the right to sanction them. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that Weinstein ever “validated” white nationalists, nor suggested that students such as Hadley should police the lives of others who differ with them politically.
Jamil, another student took to mocking the very notion of free speech saying, “When we’re dead, when people die, and you’re sitting here like ‘well at least they got to practice their free speech, I’m so sorry but your speech is not more important than the lives of Blacks, trans, fems and students on this campus.”
Evergreen students put forth no evidence suggesting that anyone was killed or put in danger following Weinstein’s appearance on Fox News. Moreover, the situation never suggested that speech was more important than someone’s life, in part because none of this speech is leading to the deaths of students at Evergreen.
Such situations help reflect how polarizing rhetoric can be. Disagreements—which in this case reflect differences in messaging and not the movement—have created hostile situations where faculty who value diversity and equality are deemed racists because they disagree with certain policies.
There is irony here. The very faction of college students that use free speech as a tool to hold others hostage are doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights in the first place. If speech is only speech that one agrees with, then nothing about it is free.
Those who disagree with this are labeled and ostracized when the simple crime committed is independence of thought. Cole continues, “But the power of our First Amendment advocacy turns on our commitment to a principle of viewpoint neutrality that requires protection for proponents and opponents of our own best view of racial justice. If we defended speech only when we agreed with it, on what ground would we ask others to tolerate speech they oppose?”
If we make conscious decisions to champion diversity in all realms of academia, then diversity of opinion should be as sacrosanct as skin color.
Isaac Simon is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]