Opinion: Campuses Threatened by Speech Suppression

In elementary school we learned the value of open dialogue and debate. Debate is defined, per dictionary.com, as “a formal contest in which the affirmative and negative sides of a proposition are advocated by opposing speakers.”

This open discourse was historically encouraged on college campuses. Universities exemplified intellectual discussion and debate in America. No one voiced their opinions louder than students, professors and administrators. Colleges encouraged diversity of thought, and students flocked to campuses to encounter people from different backgrounds, to expand their minds, and most importantly, to form their own opinions.

Unfortunately, a wave of free speech suppression is sweeping across college campuses, and the free and open discourse of ideas is being threatened. Four examples stand out: on Sept. 25, 2017, right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos at a free speech rally at the University of California, Berkeley was shouted down, and demonstrators caused more than $100,000 in damage to the campus; on Nov. 16, 2016, conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro, while speaking at the University of Wisconsin, was continually interrupted while commenting on the importance of freedom of speech; on March 2, 2017, American libertarian Charles Murray, while speaking at Middlebury College, encountered violent protestors. Sadly, the moderator of the event, Professor Elizabeth Stranger, was physically assaulted and hospitalized; on April 6, 2017, political scientist Heather MacDonald, a 2005 Bradley Prize recipient, was “shouted down” while speaking at Claremont McKenna College. Students were suspended for blocking access to this event.

Jim Scripps, director of Sierra Nevada College’s new media journalism program, finds the events at Middlebury College, and other colleges around the country to be disturbing, and antithetical to the philosophy of freedom of speech.

“I think the suppression of speech is unfortunate because the best way to fight opposing ideas is to present new ideas, and the best way to confront opposing speech is with more speech,” he said.

Cliff Maloney, Jr., executive director at Young Americans for Liberty, told Time Magazine in October, “Colleges have no right to limit students’ free speech,” that we should be able to discuss the abuse of power within our government and the consistent violations of our Bill of Rights.

“Instead of actually debating ideas that span topics from the conventional to the taboo, a generation of American students don’t engage, they just get enraged,” he said. “Many students believe that they have a right to literally shut other people up.”

Maloney says this attitude is not only a threat to the First Amendment, but also to American democracy. America is a land rooted in in the ideas of a free society: the freedom to be who you are, to speak your mind and to innovate. Suppressing opposing speech is to start down a slippery slope.

Jaime Edwards, a junior new media journalism major, finds that individuals who prevent others from speaking are missing the point of freedom of speech.
“I think people need to open up their minds a little bit and try to understand the opposing point of view,” she said. “Having a differing opinion does not make you a radical.”

Victoria Woods, a sophomore biology major, says it is not always easy being a conservative.
“In being a conservative there are some topics I will not often address because I know I will get backlash for my opinion,” she said.

Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean at University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law weighed in on this issue in a December article on the Vox Media site, entitled “Hate Speech is Protected Free Speech, Even on College Campuses.”

Chemerinsky, who has been teaching First Amendment law for more than 37 years, acknowledges that disputes over free speech on campus have long occurred, but today it is different.

“At Berkeley and elsewhere, it is now often the students and faculty calling for preventing the speakers while campus officials are steadfastly protecting freedom of expression,” he said.

Chemerinsky worries that students do not realize the degree to which free speech has been essential for the advancement of rights and equality.

“There would not have been a 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, without the women’s suffrage movement and its widespread demonstrations. The civil rights protests of the 1960s were essential to bringing about the end of segregation,” he said.

“Of course, free speech is not absolute and can be punished when it incites illegal activity, constitutes a ‘true threat’ that causes a person to fear imminent harm to his or her physical safety, or rises to the level of prohibited harassment,” he said.
The law is clear that a public university may not exclude a speaker based on his or her views, nor may students or faculty be punished for the views they express.

June Saraceno, English program chair at SNC, values free speech.

“I believe SNC stands by this value inside the classroom and outside of it,” she said.

Saraceno says free speech doesn’t mean there are no consequences for what we say. If I say insensitive things, I’ll be judged by my words, and that is exactly as it should be, she said.

The spread of speech disruption threatens not only academic and intellectual freedom of speakers and audiences. It also threatens to undermine the academic freedom of educational institutions themselves.

Dan O’Bryan, Assistant Provost, Department Chair, Humanities and Social Sciences, finds freedom of speech to be an absolute right guaranteed to us by the Constitution.

“Any attempt to limit free speech is definitely a violation of the Constitution, and a denunciation of life in a functional democracy because our opinions are the lifeblood of a dynamic ongoing democratic experience,” he said.

It is important that our First Amendment rights remain protected – not just on college campuses, but everywhere in America.