OP-ED: Free Expression — Even Those With Whom We Disagree

Madison Popovic, Editorial Director, Senior

Frederick Douglas once said, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” In high school, we are told that our voices matter. For many young adults, college is the first real proving ground where they can stand up for what they believe in. The right to speak out on college campuses, however, has been fraught with controversy. Some students react poorly to the opinions of their peers which, in turn, impedes the expression of others’ thoughts. It is imperative that the right to speak out on a college campus is protected. For this to happen, students must react appropriately and in a mature manner to others who desire to let their voices be heard. We must learn to respect others’ right to express their opinions, even when we disagree with them.

It is now, more than ever, vital for colleges to establish policies that preserve the rights of their students. Jonathon Butcher, a senior policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education, said in an article for heritage.org that Alabama Governor Kay Ivey approved a proposal that “….forbids so-called free speech zones, instructs university officials to be prepared to issue consequences to students who violate others’ right to listen and be heard.” Free Speech Zones are defined as small, isolated areas of campus where any free expression can be made. Governor Ivey’s proposal is clear: one should be able to speak one’s mind or express one’s ideas anywhere they like, not just in a regulated area. Those who oppose this maintain that there are, in fact, ideas so repugnant, that they should not be expressed. But, shouldn’t college campuses be a place where, as the old adage says, one should be able to “respectfully disagree,” even with the most reprehensible ideas?

Some students dispute this idea. In fact, undergraduates at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, were downright appalled by this idea. They believe that it would cause more harm than good to encourage ideals espoused in the doctrine of yet another school, the University of Chicago’s Principles of Free Expression. It states, the “….University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive.” In other words, the University of Chicago doctrine says that individuals can and should express controversial ideas at the university freely since an open dialogue promotes critical thinking and deliberation. The Williams students would have none of it.

Some professors at Williams tried to take action, but students protested. More than a dozen of them barged into a faculty meeting last November holding signs such as ‘free speech harms.’ Talk about irony! Here were students who otherwise would have marched in protest to protect their free speech claiming that the free speech of others, even extremists, wasn’t worthy of the same respect.

Free speech cannot just be considered a sacred right when it supports the things one believes in. It is imperative to protect the right of everyone, even those who desire to voice their thoughts on a topic of unpopular discussion.

Jonathon Villasenor, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, conducted a survey on undergraduate students which revealed horrific results. In an article for The Washington Post, Villasenor stated that, “…..a fifth of undergrads now say it’s acceptable to use physical force to silence a speaker who makes ‘offensive and hurtful statements.” That is 20 percent of a college campus willing to physically harm those with whom they disagree.

Students must feel safe to express their thoughts and encourage the same for others on campus. Free speech does not just exist for popular speech. It is time to promote the perpetual free exchange of thoughts on college campuses.