We Cannot Exempt Ourselves from Criticism in the Name of Free Speech

It’s fairly common to invoke the term “free speech” to criticize campus activism. The obvious problem with this criticism is that protests are not suppressions of free speech; they are examples of it. Campus activists are not engaging in systematic violence or censorship against people with political opinions that differ from their own. Moreover, these activists are not part of any officially sanctioned institution. I find the comparisons (found usually in internet comments or in casual conversation with friends) of the political atmosphere of liberal arts colleges to the political atmosphere of Stalin’s Russia or China during the Cultural Revolution to be particularly ridiculous because of this basic fact: campus activists don’t wield the threat of violence in the same way that totalitarian regimes do.

Perhaps, however, I should be more charitable to the arguments that campus activism is somehow hostile to “free speech.” Often, those who argue that campus activism detracts from freedom of speech do not believe that these campus activists are actually violating anybody’s first amendment rights. Rather, the argument is that activists contribute to a social atmosphere which is deleterious to true freedom of expression. The idea is that students will be harshly censured by their fellow students for expressing conservative political opinions, and this threat of this censure prevents more conservative students from openly expressing their opinions.

However, in many cases, this type of suppression of speech is acceptable. If somebody at one of the Claremont Colleges were to express their political sympathies with Neo-Nazis or the KKK, then one would rightly expect others to censure them socially, even though that might prevent other white supremacists from expressing their political opinions. My point here is not that Republicans are morally equivalent to Nazis, merely that there is some speech that many believe ought to be broadly condemned. So, when people criticize campus activists in the name of “free speech,” they are supposing that their own political opinions—which they believe to be suppressed in the same way that the political opinions of white supremacists are—are not beyond the pale in the same way that the opinions of white supremacists are.

Again, I don’t mean to say that conservative political opinions ought to be taboo. But I do think that the question of whether or not they ought to be taboo is what is actually at issue in the argument about whether campus activism violates freedom of speech. Unless those criticizing campus activists for the atmosphere they engender on campus intend to argue that nobody ought to be harshly censured for their political beliefs, no matter how odious those beliefs are, they must believe that their own political beliefs are not so odious as to deserve censure. The issue here is that some people (many campus activists among them) may believe those political beliefs to be odious enough to deserve censure. If that is the case, then the type of censure that critics of the campus left believe activists to engage in is actually completely justified.

When people criticize campus activists for violations of “free speech,” then, they are really saying that their own political views ought to be given more respect. This is a natural thing to assert (most people believe that their own political beliefs ought to be given more respect), but it is not the kind of assertion that can be defended by criticizing the opposition for violating one’s right to freedom of speech. Rather than talking about the opposition’s freedom of speech one needs to talk about one’s own political beliefs in order to defend their humanity and intellectual soundness. If conservative critics of campus activists were able to do that successfully, then perhaps those campus activists would not find their beliefs so odious.

William Schumacher PO '18 is a philosophy major from San Jose, CA.

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