The Burden of Free Speech

"Maybe we could find our way to realizing that it is OUR WORDS that shape OUR WORLD". Photo Courtesy: HonestReporting
“Maybe we could find our way to realizing that it is OUR WORDS that shape OUR WORLD”.
Photo Courtesy: HonestReporting

By Chris Sick

Whatever else may be difficult about writing this column, there is a certain dreadful reliability in knowing that I will never want for material. Month in and month out I can rest easy knowing that my country will never fail to disappoint.

The greatest challenge is in keeping the content relevant, taking from an ongoing controversy, meaningful insights that extend beyond it. Because I know that in the time between meeting deadline and publication, some fresh outrage will have displaced whatever headline to which I’m reacting.

As I write this, students at the University of Missouri and Yale University have demanded recognition and administrative response to their claims that there is endemic prejudice on their campuses, occasionally boiling over into overt racial hostility. Students have disrupted the normal business of campus and at the University of Missouri, they’ve achieved one of their goals when UM President Tim Wolfe resigned.

The national attention focused on these campus protests largely has failed to engage with, or even recognize, the concerns of these protestors. Instead, grown adults – from across the political spectrum – have decided to engage in hyperbolic handwringing about the imminent threat to free speech embodied in a young undergraduate shouting and cursing at an administrator.

As I’m about to accuse virtually an entire class of opinion writers of being intellectually dishonest, I should probably do my level best to avoid the exact same thing. There have been reports and videos of protestors at both campuses crossing the line between militant protest into threats and physical  intimidation.

It should go without saying that such actions deserve universal condemnation, and they’ve largely received it. But it takes a special sort of view to insist – before the above even occurred – that the aforementioned undergraduate represents a dangerous and imminent threat to free speech.

The student, gleefully identified by conservative media, is reportedly receiving death threats. For the record, in the hierarchy of threats to speech, I’d generally rank death threats over protests, boycotts, and loudly shouted cuss words.

If this is all news to you, you should go and read the stories for yourself, consider the opinions – and the voices offering them – carefully. It would take more columns than I’ve written to detail and adjudicate the complaints of students. And since I’m not a student, faculty, or administrator on either campus, I’m not sure I’ve got the local knowledge and standing to do so.

Not that that has stopped commentators on the left and the right from outright ignoring those complaints and concerns. Instead, they have refocused the conversation on the actions of a few and declared the entire affair to be emblematic of the inherently antidemocratic tendencies of campus political correctness.

I’ve written about political correctness before, and won’t pretend I came to any deeply meaningful conclusions. The truth is that the U.S. is struggling with the creation of a truly pluralistic, multicultural society that it’s long paid lip service to. And the road there will be messy and fraught with demands for recognition of injustices systemic and personal, balanced against the need for free and open discourse.

And this might be a useful time for a helpful caveat – I am an opinion writer literally hoping to eke out a living pedaling unpopular opinion. No one needs to tell me about the value in speech, or that threats to it frequently come not from government, but a chilling effect encouraging self-censoring for fear of informal censure.

But such concerns shouldn’t be used to justify ignoring the complaints of the students themselves and dismissing them as spoiled kids demanding protection from offensive ideas. Further right, many conservatives are busy insisting that purported racist incidents are hoaxes, even as more racist incidents and threats pile up and protests spread nationwide.

Instead of operating under the assumption that the protestors are actually adults – able to decide for themselves what matters and what doesn’t, to demand institutional recognition of their concerns at their schools, and able to face the consequences of their actions – many in the media are insisting the only story here is how awful are today’s kids.

It’s an old tactic. The demand that terms of the debate favor the status quo is one way to protect it from challenge. Instead of recognizing students as, fundamentally, engaged in speech demanding institutional change, commentators contort themselves to see the traditional methods and aims of student activism as new threats to an imagined marketplace of ideas where everyone gets a fair hearing.

The truth is that public discourse is messy, it is difficult, and it rarely leads to agreement. Instead of articulating abstract principles about the necessity of protecting even offensive speech, critics could do the hard work of actually addressing students’ concerns about prejudice on campus, lack of diversity, and administrative indifference. But cheap laughs and outraged reactions are easier.

When a grown adult insists that student activism they disagree with justifies denying students the vote, it’s hard to take it as a spirited defense of discourse. Instead of empty platitudes, maybe we could recognize that free speech is so incredibly important because of exactly how powerful it is.

Instead of articulating a defense that rests on the supposed hypersensitivity of students, maybe we could find our way to realizing that it is our words that shape our world. And everyone doesn’t experience this world equally.

Words have power; it is why they’re worth defending. But an empty appeal to the marketplace of ideas won’t fix deeply systemic failings. Addressing those concerns and the protestors who are pushing those issues could be a start. A demand to respect the principles of speech could stand to be accompanied by actual respect for speech, and a response that extends beyond next month’s media cycle.