Summer Series #1: The Importance of Free Speech

By Brett Dowling (Board Member)

Questions of free speech are challenging to address, precisely because of their highly complex and deeply philosophical nature. Yet we find ourselves with an urgent need to confront these very questions, given the free-speech flare-ups that have recently afflicted college campuses.

At this critical juncture, it is my belief that we as students must make a bold and new commitment to free speech on our university campuses. Far from attempts to restrict speech on our campuses, we should be working to strengthen institutional protections for all speech and to change social norms amongst our peers that seem to advance a dystopian sense of moral and ideological conformity over genuine disagreement.

Free speech prohibition on college campuses—and to clarify, I am referring in this essay exclusively to acts of “protest” that are themselves mutually exclusive to another individual’s communicative action (in truth, these sorts of prohibitive acts do not deserve the dignity of the term “protest”)—has a distinctively vigilante air, and is almost always driven by students who will either directly shut down speaking events themselves or else corner university administrators into disinviting certain speakers. These students justify their actions by claiming that their university was wrong to allow a given speaker to come to campus in the first place, and thus take it upon themselves to assume authority and shut down the profane speaker, making it as if the speaker was never invited and thereby righting a perceived wrong.

But, like most vigilantes, their rationale is deeply flawed and even dangerous. The first argument often evoked by free speech vigilantes is that allowing certain speakers on campus violates some sort of community standard or set of community values. To begin, appeals to “community values” should always give us pause, as such rhetoric is often mobilized to create a sense of false uniformity where none exists. Community values are not necessarily bad when they are agreed upon organically, but when they require paralegal force or violence or intimidation to be enforced, you know those values are far from communally shared in reality; instead, they reflect an illiberal, majoritarian attempt by some group to impose moral conformity on an otherwise ideologically diverse constituency.

In nearly every speaker cancellation case, the speaker was not invited by some malignant external actor attempting to infiltrate the campus (Russia be damned), but by the vigilantes’ fellow duly-enrolled students. Why are these community members’ values somehow less important to the community than anyone else’s? Why do these people who wish to hear someone speak have less of a right to the community than anybody else? They, too, are autonomous actors with minds, ambitions, and beliefs of their own, and do not deserve to have anyone else’s intellectual concoctions imposed upon them. If their ideas truly defy reason—all the better! Opponents of theirs should have no problem listening to their ideas and thoughtfully picking them apart through discourse and discussion. When it comes to moralizing for the many, we must be very careful not to confuse our personal preferences with social absolutes. Leave the “community values” for the Politburo or the Kremlin propagandists.

The second argument often raised is that the mere presence of certain speakers on college campuses poses a deep emotional threat to the wellbeing of students, and thus that such speech must be prohibited. But if we accept as a principle that any speech that inflicts emotional discomfort on any student morally justifies that speech being prohibited, I am afraid we might as well sew all our mouths shut now. Not only is this principle clearly absurd when applied uniformly (instead of haphazardly, as is the case now), but it is also actively dangerous. Throughout history, groups have been marginalized by this very sort of “emotional threat” or “identity threat” rhetoric—people found (and continue to find) gay marriage “disgusting,” in many cases an attack on their religious identity—and use their personal, emotional repulsion as one form of justification for the prohibition of such activity. Thankfully, rationality has prevailed and many now recognize that emotional discomfort is insufficient grounds for social control. But we should not repeat or perpetuate these past wrongs by simply substituting in new targets—namely those with whom we ideologically disagree—for our emotional disgust and subsequent intolerance. It was wrong then and it is wrong now: emotional offense alone is no grounds for prohibition.

The third and final argument common to free speech vigilantes is that certain speakers, through their fiery rhetoric or unsavory messaging, indirectly and inadvertently promote physical violence on campus. Thus, to prevent them from speaking is to prevent a series of (Orwellianly) alleged “would-be” acts of violence from occurring. Importantly, we have laws that prevent speakers from explicitly promoting or inciting violence, and those are in place for good reason. But when someone speaks about an abstract idea or ideology that later may be interpreted by some zealot as the basis for committing a violent crime, this is certainly not the fault of the speaker—and is even more certainly not grounds to prohibit him or her from speaking. Responsibility for the extremist interpretation of anything unequivocally lies in the hands of the interpreter—the very nature of interpretation is that it is subjective, by definition the product of the machinations of the relevant actors’ mind. Directly linking certain abstract ideas that contain no reference to violence to certain violent actions is plain old scare-mongering. To draw such a conclusion is equivalent to the ridiculous causal gobbledygook that we often see from some of the more dubious commentators of our time, such as those who claim that the Quran should be banned because it itself is responsible for radical Islamic terrorism.

And finally, a brief note on the constructive case for unfettered free speech. The dirtiness of the 2016 election was evidence of what happens when we start dehumanizing our opponents. When we allow ourselves to treat people we disagree with as merely a set of repulsive ideas rather than as individual thinking, breathing, living beings, then there is no viable path forward for society. We should constructively engage people who hold ideas we find disgusting at every turn, without fear or favor, because what seems like orthodoxy today might tomorrow be reprehensible— or vice versa. In all matters probably—but in moral matters certainly—we can never presume to know with complete certainty what amongst our thought is fully truthful and what is not unless we constantly and genuinely continue to challenge those very beliefs. In this way, the institution of free speech renews our faith in our own individual beliefs, or else sweeps away our old beliefs, hopefully to be replaced by something we deem to be better. Shutting down speech is easy—autocrats have been doing it for centuries. Respecting, engaging, and changing profoundly differing views is a real challenge, but I believe it is through these avenues only that we reach a universal sense of accord and truth.

In its own meta way, this essay is perhaps a testament to the mantra I have espoused. I believe I am witness to a saddening and ultimately divisive erosion in the free flow of ideas on mine and many others’ campuses, and I wrote this essay to try to make the (presently unfashionable?) case for reversing this trend. I may be wrong in my position, and you may find that the arguments in support of limiting free speech on campuses are more compelling. I respect that, and I look forward to reading many opposing views. Until then, I am honored to have had the platform to share my thoughts, and I refuse to ever take it for granted.

This post is part of the Summer Series, a six-week writing project that will feature opinions on aspects of free speech from young writers across the country. To learn more, or to contribute to the Summer Series, click here.