To my fellow liberals: Young Americans for Freedom is hoping you protest them tomorrow. They’re hoping you shout down Katie Pavlich as she defends her firearm fetish. They hope you shut down the event so you can be featured in a video under a clickbait headline on a conservative news website, preferably one that uses the words “freedom,”“patriot” and “conservative” in its name. And they hope your actions will provoke the Wisconsin Senate into approving the overly broad Campus Free Speech Bill that the Assembly passed in June.
The dual pull of free speech on the University of Wisconsin’s campus exemplifies what’s happening in colleges across the country.
Conservative organizations like YAF seek to bring provocative speakers on campus in the name of free debate. The invited are typically pundits and right-wing Twitter celebrities. Their books are often found in the remainder bin of your local bookstore, sometimes days after they are released.
Some of these speakers, like Ben Shapiro, have a history of supporting government censorship of political and explicit speech. Others, like convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza, have literally written that American liberals and Nazis are the exact same. At the invitation of a student group, these dreadful commentators have the constitutional right to speak on campus. The apparent motive is to educate, the ulterior motive to troll.
UW Board of Regents approves policy to suspend students for disrupting campus speakersThe University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approved a policy Friday that would suspend or expel students for disrupting Read…
Liberal students, angered by the content of the speeches, respond accordingly and play into the hands of the very groups they oppose. They’ll toss out untrue canards like “hate speech is not free speech,” attempt to shut down the events in question and will ultimately provide the bulk of B-roll footage on Fox News that week. They’ll do this in the name of their right to freely counter-protest. Until they become disruptive, they too have the right to free speech in defense of their ideals.
Conservative legislators, witnessing the dual pull, will seek to ingrain the right to free speech by limiting the right to protest. If legislatures are unable to do the job quickly, the politically-appointed Board of Regents will have to do the dirty work, as Wisconsin learned last week.
Preserving a controversial pundit’s right to speak at public colleges and to be allowed into the marketplace of ideas is to reiterate a basic principle of universal freedom — that government has no place in dictating what to think or believe. As odious as YAF’s ideas are, they have the right to bring Ben Shapiro or Katie Pavlich onto campus without fear of disruption. This is where the heckler’s veto becomes important. If the government stands idly by as a person’s right to free speech is trampled by a mob — be it liberal or conservative — it is morally complicit in censorship.
The policy approved by the Board of Regents, however, is a bad idea. It promotes a culture of fear and retribution on campus, where mere complaints can land a student in trouble. Two complaints merit a suspension, a third means automatic expulsion. The qualifier for prohibited protest, that it “materially and substantially” disrupts another’s right to hear others or express himself, is intentionally vague and flexible.
In order for liberal students to truly fight back, they must bring left-wing speakers on campus to enrich debate. Noam Chomsky — who I strongly disagree with — is a good start, as are African-American academics Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West.
Princeton philosopher Peter Singer holds provocative views on euthanasia and abortion that are antithetical to the pro-life position conservatives hold dear — he should speak too. Student forums and debates on important issues should also periodically be held between left-wing students and conservative groups in the spirit of “sifting and winnowing,” those important words regarding the pursuit of truth etched onto the Bascom Hall plaque.
The answer to offensive speech isn’t an obtrusive government policy or a student-led shutdown of debate. To quote the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Zach Urisman ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in finance.