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Millennials, don’t give up on free speech

Emily Ekins

Outrage continues at Yale and other colleges as campuses grapple with how to balance fostering social equality and protecting free speech. This debate has revealed too many of our nation’s brightest students believe free speech and promoting social equality are at odds and remain unaware of free speech’s vital importance. We must take this opportunity to make the case to the rising generation why free speech matters and why curtailing it could create more problems than it solves.

For some, this may have been the first time they heard that allowing free speech is not synonymous with endorsing its content. Given this misunderstanding, it’s perhaps more understandable why students feel disrespected.

The confusion over free speech’s purpose suggests we must reiterate its vital importance:

■What constitutes offensive speech can be highly subjective. For instance, one student’s war protest could be viewed as offensive to veterans, or a BlackLivesMatter protest could be viewed as “anti-cop” to others. Or stating one’s belief that “America is the land of opportunity” while innocuous to some, could be officially dubbed a “micro-aggression” and thus nearly an act of violence by others.

■Free speech can be an asset to the less powerful against the powerful. If free speech were not an asset of the less powerful, why in the 1830s did Southern state legislatures pass laws preventing postmasters from delivering abolitionist pamphlets? Or why did the FBI send threatening letters to Dr. Martin Luther King implying he stop his efforts or even commit suicide? The power of speech to combat oppression is a central reason the powerful have sought to hamper it.

■More speech, not less, is the best tool against offensive speech. Campus speech codes treat the symptom, not the cause — which is bigotry. As the ACLU put it: “When hate is out in the open, people can see the problem. Then they can organize effectively to counter bad attitudes, possibly change them, and forge solidarity against the forces of intolerance.”

■Free speech is indivisible. Tactics used to silence others’ offensive speech today could one day be used to silence our speech in the future. Conversely, laws that protect offensive speech can also be used to defend justice activists’ rights. For instance, the ACLU points out that the precedent used to defend 1960s civil rights demonstrators was based on a 1949 case defending an ex-Catholic priest who delivered a racist speech.

We cannot overlook the fact that much of what’s driving outrage on college campuses is a result of genuine frustration over racial discrimination in both its explicit and implicit forms: this must be addressed. And this is all the more reason for universities to show students how to exercise their speech rights to combat oppression: instructing how to listen to different arguments, evaluate them, and respond with civil arguments based on evidence.

The course of history has not been able to avoid the power of ideas, to be persuaded by reason. Let us reiterate to the next generation these lessons and hope to persuade them to not give up on freedom, because freedom is what ultimately pushes our country forward.

Emily Ekins is a research fellow at the Cato Institute. She wrote this for