In Today’s World, Free Speech Under Siege in Higher Ed.

Ethan Yang ’20

Contributing Writer

As the late playwright and novelist James Baldwin once said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” In many ways I agree – surely, we should aspire to be kind to one another and root out racists. However, it seems like in today’s polarized times this way of thinking has extended far beyond its bounds. The idea that speech is violence is taking root in colleges across America, empowering disturbing censorship policies. Students from a variety of groups are deeming themselves victims and demanding the rights of those they disagree with be diminished. I even got a personal email sent to me by a sitting Trinity SGA member that “In today’s political climate, I am sure you are aware that political ideologies are taken very seriously and can cause upset among many.” In polarized times like these we should encourage more speech, not less. Freedom of speech does not exist so we can talk about the weather, rather it exists so we can have very difficult conversations.

The whole notion that speech is violence is not only a dangerous one, but it’s literally an outdated product of the past that we should be glad to get rid of. Somewhere between 100-200 years ago, people used to duel to the death for making off-hand comments. The royalty of the many monarchies that used to dot the world could have people punished for things they’ve said. Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln were killed for their political beliefs. The fact that we have codified protections for free speech in the First Amendment of the Constitution is a tremendous achievement that we ought to honor. Not only does it protect this fundamental, natural right, but it’s a profound realization that an inclusive, pluralistic society requires the toleration of drastically different ideas. The world is an incredibly diverse place full of countless different perspectives. A society in which individuals cannot voice their minds without fear of retaliation isn’t much of a society at all.

Free speech in America is robustly protected legally, but that’s not the problem. The problem lies in the individual citizens’ respect for this fundamental right and their willingness to use it. This is especially true on college campuses where some students and faculty are calling for the shutting down of those they disagree with. This includes the anonymous reporting of professors or fellow students for offensive statements, as well as full on censorship of views found undesirable. In 2017, the Rutgers University Conservative Union called for, and won, a referendum to defund the school newspaper for what it found to be “fake news.” When mainstream conservative personality Ben Shapiro spoke at UC Berkeley, protestors literally set parts of the school on fire. The First Amendment can only keep the government from infringing on our free speech rights. Ensuring these rights are actually practiced is another question entirely. In order to secure the blessings of free speech and debate, we need to do better in exercising as well as defending this fundamental right.

The first black Ivy League President, Ruth J. Simmons, in her convocation address at Brown remarked, “Knowledge is rooted in freedom of speech and inquiry. Over the centuries, freedom of speech has overturned tyranny, led new populations of learners to the academy…it is this same freedom that protects us when we are powerless.” I’ve heard that free speech enables racism and oppression. Sometimes it does, but it has also allowed the oppressed to overcome the oppressor more often than not. Further, what use is our education without free discussion and inquiry? Ruth Simmons would say that “While comfort may dwell in silence, truth cannot dwell there.” That’s what censorship and intolerance towards ideas we don’t like produces. It reduces the campus conversation down to a whisper, where no one but those initially ordained to be correct may speak. Where we the students are just able to nod in agreement.

Ruth Simmons, to the tune of thunderous applause, later remarked, “If you’ve come to this place for comfort [Brown University]… pass through that portal and never look back.” The university, especially one with the caliber of students here at Trinity, should be a place where the leaders of tomorrow are forged. Outside our dear old Trinity is a world full of tremendous issues that only the sharpest minds and toughest souls can face. Around the country, peoples’ voices are being reduced to a whisper. Whether it stems from an oppressive institution or fear of backlash, our culture of debate and discussion is faltering. In times like this, this small college needs to roar like a lion to protect free speech.