Free speech isn’t just a quaint idea

Maria Servold

The news is flush with stories about free speech, from NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to college students seeking safe spaces. All these stories make it clear — there is no clarity about free speech in America.

What once seemed like an obvious point — that we should defend our neighbor’s right to speak freely, even if we disagree with them — has now become a quaint idea, replaced with the notion that only speech we agree with is worth defending. Take the University of California, Berkeley as an example.

In late September, a student organization that planned to host “Free Speech Week” at the school canceled the event before it could begin. It was heartening to see Berkeley administrators allow students to plan it, after what seemed like a litany of cancellations of speeches planned by conservative speakers there in the past.

According to news reports, the group planning the event, Berkeley Patriot, was concerned about the safety of speakers, who themselves were one by one deciding against appearing. The group told media outlets the school could not guarantee the safety of the speakers, and so the event folded before it could even begin.

It wasn’t all bad, though: conservative pundit Ben Shapiro was able to speak at Berkeley earlier in September. But it took police in riot gear and $600,000 from the university to guarantee his safety and the safety of those who attended the speech, according to news reports. Kudos to Shapiro for speaking, but $600,000 for one speech is a high price indeed. Is that cost worth it? Should conservatives on campuses across the country continue to fight the good fight and host events despite the cost, or would it be wiser to take the discussion elsewhere?

More than ever, American colleges must recommit to supporting free speech, particularly in the wake of several facts. At Middlebury College, the site of an extreme example of liberal aversion to free speech in the last year, a new policy in place allows the college’s administration to evaluate proposed events and, if they are deemed to attract “an imminent and credible threat to the community,” cancel them. Since when is a conservative speaker “an imminent and credible threat”? The raucous college students who call for actual violence against those they disagree with — they could legitimately be considered credible threats.

The confusion among college students about what is a threat and what is free speech was proven with the results of a Brookings Institution poll released recently. The poll of college students found 1in 5 believe violence is an acceptable response to prevent speech they deem offensive. This is outrageous, and illuminates to crystal clear a particularly egregious aspect of this anti-free speech movement — the misunderstanding by college students of the meaning of words like “offensive” and “violent.” A speech by someone who you disagree with is not inherently violent. Might that person say offensive things? Yes. Might that person make you feel uncomfortable? Yes. Are you physically harmed by listening to the person? No, unless you consider heartache to be physical harm.

In many of the stories of campus protests in the last year, the violence that students were so afraid of was actually perpetuated by protesters, not by speakers or those attending the speeches. Violence on college campuses is not OK, no matter the perpetrator, but the series of protests over conservative speakers feeds an attitude that “violence” by those speakers is anathema; violence (disguised ironically as “freedom of speech”) by protesters against those speakers is praiseworthy. This double standard is often unacknowledged and, if unaddressed, will only send our campuses further down the rabbit hole.

Those who disagree with a speaker’s ideas or words have every right to believe what they want and express their own dissenting opinions. But not liking what someone else has to say does not take away that person’s right to speak. Berkeley’s Free Speech week may have been canceled, but young conservatives must persevere in their attempts to balance the liberal rhetoric on campuses. Only then will true freedom of speech find its footing again.

Maria Servold is assistant director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.