In Defense of Free Speech and Open Discourse

Last Thursday, 5C students swarmed Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum, where conservative commentator and author Heather Mac Donald was to speak in defense of police officers and argue against the Black Lives Matter movement.

The roughly 300 protesters claimed that Mac Donald was a racist and should not be allowed to speak, blocking access to the building and forcing Mac Donald, already inside, to speak to a nearly empty room and an audience watching via livestream.

But no matter what Mac Donald’s views may be — even if she has opinions that one finds personally abhorrent — her right to express those views must be defended at all costs.

Free speech is protected by the all-important First Amendment, and the right to express one’s beliefs should be celebrated and encouraged, not condemned. As a journalist, my profession is protected under the same tenet, and I will always come to the defense of free speech.

Unfortunately, somewhere in college students’ ongoing crusade to combat bigotry and hatred, they have begun refusing to listen to anyone whose views and ideas differ from their own. If you’re not ultra-liberal and progressive, they’ll bury their heads in the sand — and your head too.

In the real world, not everyone is going to agree on everything. Isn’t the point of a college education to stretch your mind, consider new vantage points and listen to different points of view?

Last week’s TSL editorial, “Ath Talks Aren’t Neutral,” claimed that allowing Mac Donald to speak at the Athenaeum entailed “amplifying her voice and enhancing her credibility.”

“There’s no way to truly support the Black Lives Matter movement while fetishizing the First Amendment into an excuse for supporting racists,” the Editorial Board wrote.

First of all, what’s wrong with amplifying her voice? Some people might be interested in hearing what she has to say and allowing her to challenge their views.

Mac Donald influences Americans, no matter whether we choose to drown her out with protests or not. So why not listen to what she has to say? You don’t have to agree with her, but maybe you’ll learn something interesting.

TSL's Editoral Board claimed that people are free to read about or listen to Mac Donald on their own, but by CMC inviting her, it is legitimizing her views. And that’s fine — by inviting her, the college is acknowledging that she has a following, and that some people think like her; it isn’t necessarily endorsing her values. It is simply saying that people have different perspectives on issues; the college is encouraging students to hear a range of those perspectives.

As for the accusation that proponents of free speech support racists — I certainly support racists’ right to free speech. Contrary to popular belief, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.

According to the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan forum studying free speech issues, there are nine categories of unprotected speech: obscenity, fighting words, defamation, child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless action, true threats, and solicitations to commit crimes.

It doesn’t sound like Heather Mac Donald was planning to commit perjury, blackmail anyone, or incite the crowd to beat up black people in the audience. Short of such immediate, incendiary language, she should have been allowed to make her case.

Free speech doesn’t only apply to speech with which you agree. If people get to arbitrarily decide what speech is permissible and what isn’t, you could very quickly find that your own beliefs and opinions are censored, depending on who is making those decisions.

Just as abolitionists censored by early 19th century gag rules successfully argued that their freedom of speech was being violated, the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis must be allowed to march through towns and hold speeches — look at landmark free speech Supreme Court cases Brandenburg v. Ohio and National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie. You don’t have to like what they say, but you should defend their right to say it.

Over winter break, I was in Davis, California, when far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak at UC Davis. Interested in hearing from someone who espouses what could be called extreme and provocative views, I waited in line to hear Yiannopoulos, only to be disappointed when protesters caused the event to be canceled.

An opinion piece published in TSL earlier this year titled “Milo's Hate Speech is Not Free Speech,” argued that “by continuing to fund speakers like Yiannopoulos, colleges like our own are not advocating for free speech; they are encouraging a type of ill-informed, hateful discourse that has no place on our campuses.”

This discourse is going to occur somewhere, whether you like it or not. Would you rather be informed, or would you prefer to defy the First Amendment, stay trapped in the college bubble, and bury your head in the sand?

Not only is preventing fellow students from listening to a speaker unconstitutional, it’s a futile effort to keep people blocked off from conflicting views. We should want to be challenged by controversial viewpoints, not sheltered from the world around us.

Kellen Browning PO ‘20 is TSL’s News Manager, and is on a mission to visit every boba vendor in Claremont. Follow him on Twitter @kellen_browning.