Clark Kerr, the late president of the University of California, Berkeley once said that a university “is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.” While his words may resonate in today’s debate over free speech on college campuses, he originally voiced this idea in 1961, responding to protests against bringing procommunism speakers to UC campuses.
Clearly, the debate surrounding free speech on campuses is nothing new. Through different eras and political regimes, the political left and right have frequently used the notion of freedom of speech as a tool to censor ideas that they did not want to expose America’s young minds to.
Many argue that within college campuses today, certain forms of censorship have become the prerogative of the intellectual left. However, this division has not always been the case. Janet Napolitano, the current president of the University of California, put it best in a recent op-ed in The Boston Globe: “In the 1960s, as exemplified by the free speech movement at Berkeley, students on campuses demanded and received the ability to protest the Vietnam War. This was free speech, loud and angry and in your face. Today many of the loudest voices condemning speech and demanding protection are students on those same campuses.”
It is ironic that people who fought to free speech from the hold of a more socially and politically conservative intellectual class are now being protested by people who believe that same speech demands the neutralization of the public space. These demands can take many forms, such as the censorship of op-eds in student newspapers as well as calls for bans on certain ethnically suggestive Halloween costumes.
Last fall, a student columnist for the Wesleyan student newspaper, The Argus, penned an op-ed that was critical of the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement, yet campus activists took to social media, calling for the student’s resignation, the paper’s apology and even allegedly threatening violence against him personally.
For a student to voice a concern with an ideology in an open forum, while being respectful of actual problems, and be threatened by his schoolmates because of it is unacceptable. It shows how far campus activism can go in misguided defense of a neutralized public space.
The left, which is supposed to represent the defense of personal liberties and equality for all, has slowly chipped away at students’ right to express unpopular beliefs. In political pundit Kristen Power’s book, “The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech,” she analyzes the delegitimization of dissent that has become the preferred response of what she calls the “illiberal left” and questions: “What ever happened to free speech in America?”
The evolution of free speech has not been a homogenous process in the United States. It has been the concern of different political classes and has been weaponized to censor thoughts that run contrary to the normative belief of the education system.
We must resist these efforts and safeguard speech, free of most — but not all — constraints, so far as it does not constitute hate speech or directly threaten violence. If we do not, then we are endangering our campuses’ intellectual diversity and our own ability to form and voice opinions and thus actively taking part in the shaping of society.
Former Justice Hugo Black also articulated the importance of free speech and expression in a democratic society. Despite belonging to the Ku Klux Klan and supporting Japanese internment, he gave an important and relevant warning to challengers of free speech: “First Amendment must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.”
The Wesleyan incident clearly shows how, in attempting to defend a specific ideology from criticisms, the BLM supporters fell precisely into the trap of violently targeting and alienating those who would want to engage in a constructive debate around this issue. Let’s hope that our campus is not next.
Annabelle Timsit is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Use Your Words appears every other Friday.
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