Free Speech Debates Miss the Point

After student protesters blocked access to a talk by anti-Black Lives Matter speaker Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna College on April 6, the Claremont Colleges erupted in yet another round of debates about free speech.

Students who participated in the protest argued that allowing Mac Donald to express anti-black views in a public forum marginalized students of color, while free speech advocates claimed that preventing her from speaking violated both the First Amendment and the principles of open dialogue that colleges and universities are built on.

I have been extremely frustrated with both sides on this issue. I support Mac Donald’s right to speak, but not because I agree with her views or worship free speech as an abstract academic principle. If the trade-off was truly between allowing her to deliver a talk and supporting marginalized students, I would choose the latter.

The problem is that suppressing dissenting viewpoints, even reprehensible viewpoints, does not actually crush the dissent. Instead, it strengthens them by victimizing their adherents, who in turn are able to avoid any real challenges to their opinions.

If you don’t believe me, consider what happened in the immediate aftermath of the protest. Respected conservative editorial pages across the country, including in the The Wall Street Journal and The National Review, published a flurry of op-eds defending Mac Donald and denouncing radical leftists in Claremont for suppressing free speech. These op-eds almost universally avoided delving into Mac Donald's views or the subject of her talk, preferring instead to mercilessly mock student protesters.

That is a shame, because Mac Donald’s views on race and police brutality are factually incorrect and deserve to be challenged. This newspaper published an op-ed that carefully refuted each of her arguments and explained why her talk was misleading. However, the firestorm emitting from the protests, coupled with a widely publicized open letter from students calling on Pomona’s president to apologize for supporting free speech in the protest’s aftermath, allowed conservative media and Mac Donald’s supporters to ignore factual challenges to her viewpoints.

The argument that either CMC or the specific research institute that hosted Mac Donald were promoting her views by giving her a platform to speak does not hold up to scrutiny. Mac Donald is a nationally renowned speaker and author. Had CMC not invited her to speak, someone else would have.

Her anti-Black Lives Matter views are already given platforms. Moreover, they are endorsed by plenty of conservative policing experts. The only result that preventing a Q&A session accomplished was drawing negative attention to our schools while allowing Mac Donald to go unchallenged as she disseminated manipulated statistics and misleading information on police brutality.

I am not sure if most Claremont students fully understand that the protests and Mac Donald’s subsequently canceled speech were a huge public relations coup for the conservative movement. Because of the actions of the protesters, Mac Donald has received a ton of publicity and the Claremont Colleges are being treated as a joke in national media.

Oxtoby and CMC President Hiram Chodosh released statements only after having enormous pressure put on them to crack down on protesters, who are being portrayed as illiberal social justice warrior fascists. The protesters did not help themselves by physically preventing faculty attendees from entering the speaker’s venue and calling anyone who planned to attend Mac Donald’s talk (including some Jewish students) “Nazis.”

That being said, the anti-Mac Donald protesters are not the only students who fail to understand the impact of their actions. Free speech activists in Claremont have consistently displayed a callous indifference to the concerns of protesters, even though some protesters felt that Mac Donald’s allegedly anti-black views invalidated their identities and devalued their lives.

This dismissive attitude is unfair to students of color and does free speech no favors. Instead of mocking Black Lives Matter activists, those of us who support open dialogue should use our precious freedom of speech to address their objections and figure out ways to make our campus more inclusive. Snarkiness alienates potential supporters and makes us seem willfully blind to the issues raised by the protesters.

Free speech is not a sacrosanct value just because it is enshrined in the First Amendment. It is important because it is the only way for ideas—even repulsive ideas—to be considered on their merits. If you suppress the expression of these ideas, the suppressed person gets to complain that you infringed on their freedom of speech instead of being forced to defend themselves. It is a tragedy that Heather Mac Donald was given this privilege.

Kate Dolgenos PO '17 is TSL's Opinions editor and a politics major from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She wears better shoes than you.