On free speech in a free society

Conley Hurst

Last Wednesday, the University of California at Berkeley erupted into violence. Student protesters broke windows, lit fires, and threw firecrackers. The cause? Milo Yiannopoulos, the far-right-wing editor at Breitbart News, was giving a talk. Ultimately, UC Berkeley administrators canceled Yiannopoulos’s talk because they feared for his safety. I guess the protesters got what they wanted: they prevented Yiannopoulos from speaking on their campus.

Though this is an extreme example, I fear that the events at Berkeley demonstrate a disturbing trend in both our nation’s institutions of higher learning and in American political discourse more broadly.

Instead of protesting Yiannopoulos’s ideas and opinions, the Berkeley students protested the very fact that he was speaking at all. Indeed, one protester held up a sign declaring “No Safe Space for Racists.” While these students are well within their rights to speak out, so long as their protests do not become violent, Yiannopoulos has just as much of a right to speak as they do, no matter how disagreeable or offensive they may find him.

Instead of engaging with Yiannopoulos in a vigorous debate and refuting his ideas in an intellectual setting, disgruntled Berkeley students took the low road. They attempted to deny him his right to speak at all.

More and more, it seems that colleges and universities are playing by a similar playbook. Instead of fostering civil, but rigorous, debate and intellectual discourse, academic institutions are becoming places that stress ideological conformity. Students are beginning to play along and even become the standard bearers for this dogmatism.

Of course, at the heart of this movement away from the free exchange of ideas is a profound irony. Academic institutions frequently, and rightfully, embrace cultural diversity, ethnic diversity, geographic diversity, and socio-economic diversity. These differing perspectives help students see the world in new ways.

But what about political and ideological diversity? Shouldn’t differing political opinions and ideological convictions be welcomed just as readily as differing cultural and social perspectives?

At many academic institutions, this is not the case. And, thus, students themselves are growing according to this mold. Students are beginning to think that they can shield themselves from any and everything that they disagree with or find offensive. At Berkeley,

this impulse turned violent. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t work that way.

Nor should it. Enshrined within our Constitution is the right of free

speech. This right is unqualified, unless such speech instigates violence. Though, at its core, this notion is merely a legal protection, it also carries broad implications about the nature of American society at its best.

The existence of the First Amendment implies that the Founding Fathers appreciated the importance of free civil discourse in American society. They seemed to understand that we grow as a society when we learn to talk with those we disagree with, not simply silence them. We grow when we engage in arguments and dialogues, not violent protests. We grow when we seek to understand the other perspective, not simply insulate ourselves from it.

At Washington and Lee, we pride ourselves on civility and respect. But we must always remember that this notion of civility extends to a respect for differing opinions. We must never let ourselves drown out others simply because we don’t like listening to what they have to say. That’s not how we grow as individuals in a complicated society.