We’re Having Two Different Free Speech Debates On Campus

Oliver Goodman, Managing Editor, JHU:

Just like so many other universities across the country, my school has fallen in the middle of a great debate over free speech on campus. Although we have not experienced the protests that arise on larger, and more activist-enticing campuses like Berkeley, we have nonetheless faced the ideological referendum that pits the first amendment against generations of hateful rhetoric. The only problem is the two sides aren’t having the same discussion.

Although not geared towards the liberal arts, my school is nonetheless an elite east coast institution, and thus the vast majority of our students lie on the far left of the political spectrum. This means that the majority of our forums for discussion are inundated with left-leaning participants, emboldened by their majority status, who express their viewpoints with a righteous conviction that scoffs at dissent.

The structure, then, for my institution and so many others goes something like this: a conservative student or speaker in the clear minority takes an intentionally provocative stance, begetting a visceral, impassioned, and sometimes overblown reaction from the student body. The conservative response to this is rehearsed and recited: these students are simply ignoring the first amendment and stifling the right to free speech on campus. Words aren’t harmful; everyone has the right to express their own views, no matter the controversy. 

The dissenting opinion to this is almost as easily predicted. The speaker’s ideology will be denounced as “hate speech,” and the protests will be equally validated under the first amendment. The more nuanced objectors will point out that the attitudes and agendas expressed by radically conservative politicians throughout American history have largely been those of oppression. Protesting these speakers on campuses, then, is not the suppression of an ideology; rather, it’s a liberation of everyone’s right to exist equally, and a condemnation of rhetoric that has been historically wielded as a tool of subjugation.

The dichotomy between these two viewpoints largely lies in their scope. Liberal student activist who claim that the rhetoric of those rabble-rousers such as Milo Yianoppolous is harmful and hateful are, for the most part, correct. Anti-immigrant and anti-minority propaganda has been the driving force for many oppressive policies and social movements. The medium through which these students are protesting, however, does not reach the population who believes and expresses vitriolic rhetoric.

Conversely, conservatives on campus who don’t necessarily support the extreme viewpoints of alt-right provocateurs, but support the idea that all speech is free and all opinions deserve to be expressed, are cast as supporters of an ideology that is deemed as hateful. The debate, therefore, takes two different fronts. The left is protesting an oppressive ideology, and believes that those who promote this ideology are propagating oppression themselves. Conservatives are protesting the suppression of speech, the infringement of their right to free expression.

This division is exacerbated by the forum through which these debates are held. Students who protest a conservative speaker at a liberal campus are not taking a stand. There is no risk for them, or dissent within their ideological echo chamber. The audience reached by the rallies and impassioned newsletter articles is not an audience who is looking to engage or debate these ideas. In a literal sense then, these liberal students who protest what they deem to be hateful rhetoric are suppressing the voice of conservative students and speakers on campus.

In the larger scheme, there is clearly social merit behind protesting oppressive ideology. A recent Brookings study found that one in five college students believed it was permissible for a student group to employ violence to stop a speaker whom they deemed to be offensive. If twenty percent of students at institutions of higher learning across the country believe violence should be used to stop an ideology, maybe it’s time to take a hard look at the place that ideology deserves in our discourse.

There is no immediate solution to this problem. Both sides feel wronged, and in many cases both sides have experienced injustice, though the character is very different. To begin, however, the free speech debate must be refocused on exactly that: free speech. Colleges must seek out conservative intellectual speakers rather than provocateurs like Mr. Yianoppolous. If students on the right of the political spectrum see a strong representation of conservative intellectualism on campuses, they will feel more validated.

Likewise, if blatantly hateful speech is marginalized by the university community as a whole rather than a vocal minority, students will hopefully feel less compulsion to protest the presence of a speaker, and can engage and dispute their ideas rather than their existence. The road ahead is tough; to makes strides, however, we must first agree on a realm of debate. The current cycle of spite and anger does little other than rub salt in the already-deep wound. It may require more social progress than we’re ready for, but the least we can all do is sit down and talk to each other without the vitriol and complete conviction that permeates our current dialogue.

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