In Defense of Free Speech

By Nicole Divers

In today’s politically correct culture, it often feels like you can’t say anything remotely critical or controversial without being accused of hate speech. Don’t like Pocahon – excuse me – Elizabeth Warren? That’s hateful towards women. Don’t think 10-year-olds should be injected with hormones? That’s hateful towards the trans community. And don’t even dare try to defend Trump. That’s hateful to all of humanity.

Although freedom of speech is protected in the Constitution, there’s an ever-expanding push for the restriction of hate speech, especially on college campuses. The extent to which speech should be free as it pertains to college campuses is not a new debate however, it is newly relevant.

The push to restrict speech began in the mid-20th century when conservatives wanted to prohibit the speech of political dissenters like communists and civil rights activists. This began to evolve into the free speech debate we see today as the proportion of women and minorities on university campuses began rising later in the 20th century.

With the increased presence of women and minorities on campuses, there came an increasing push for the restriction of “hate speech” – speech that expresses hatred or prejudice against a certain person or group. This push eventually developed into the hate speech movement we see today which advocates for the restriction of any speech that may be offensive or triggering.

Image result for free speech in constitution

Today, universities are the marketplace of ideas. This wasn’t always the case though. The original purpose of universities was merely to impart knowledge – rather than research, students were tasked with rote memorization. The goal of the modern university, however, is not just to impart knowledge, but also to discover knowledge. This goal cannot be achieved unless all ideas are allowed to be presented and explored, and all ideas cannot be presented unless their freedom of speech is protected.

The counterargument to that is if hate speech, especially hate speech directed towards minority groups, is allowed, then these groups may feel excluded from the conversation and therefore their ideas cannot be presented.

On the surface, the restriction of hate speech sounds like a good thing. After all, plenty of things are censored – television programs, radio, even movies are given a warning label to indicate how graphic or profane they are. I think most people who go to college can agree that there are some things you shouldn’t say to people. You shouldn’t call people names, you shouldn’t make fun of people for things they can’t control, and you shouldn’t use slurs against people. But just because you shouldn’t say something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be allowed to say it. That’s a very key caveat and one that is too often overlooked. Nobody likes it when they walk through the pit and Gary calls them a sinner because they’re wearing a Metallica shirt. I’m not okay with Gary calling people sinners, but I do think he should be allowed to call people sinners.

People who advocate for banning hate speech typically assume that because someone thinks you should be allowed to call someone a racial slur, they are okay with people using racial slurs. It’s not that we want people to go around using slurs, we simply don’t want some higher power telling us what we can and can’t say, especially when that higher power wants to ban language that is often useful, like New York City banning the phrase ‘illegal alien’. This ban may seem harmless, but the term ‘illegal alien’ is a commonly used legal classification of a person’s status in the US. If this phrase were banned on a larger scale, it would invalidate thousands of legal documents, books, and academic journals, effectively erasing a significant amount of research on immigration policy. This would, for obvious reasons, hinder any attempt to search for knowledge regarding immigration. All because a few people take offense at the term ‘illegal alien’.

When a university restricts speech based on the comfort of a few individuals, it restricts ideas from the rest of the campus community simply because those ideas may be considered too offensive. But the right to free speech necessitates the right to offend. Knowledge is too valuable to be sacrificed for fear of causing offense. Therefore, in order to discover knowledge, a university must uphold freedom of speech and allow all ideas to be presented. Some of these ideas may be offensive, but freedom of speech requires a great deal of tolerance – even of offensive ideas.

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