With more than 40,000 students on the University of Wisconsin campus, it is inevitable that every single student here is likely to come across a variety of different viewpoints. Students may encounter these through academia, student organizations, speakers and their peers. Hopefully during their time on this campus, these experiences will help them grow as individuals and citizens. The inherent beauty of higher education is that college campuses become a place where the free exchange of ideas flourish. These ideas are often complex, require thought and provoke different reactions.
Today, higher education faces an entirely different challenge — free speech is at risk now more than ever. College campuses across the nation have seen countless speakers silenced due to the opinions they have held. To do this, protestors have resorted to shouting down speakers, violence and intimidation. This not only prevents the speaker from speaking in that particular instance, but it also sends a message to all others on campus that may have viewpoints that differ from the mainstream. These dangerous acts threaten the very foundation of American democracy, where the free exchange of ideas is not only cherished, but expected. If free speech cannot exist on college campuses, where can it?
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The University of Wisconsin has not been immune to disruption of speech. When Ben Shapiro came to campus, he was disrupted by protesters who organized a protest with the event title “F*** White Supremacy: Interrupting Ben Shapiro.” At the event, they blocked the stage, shouted different chants and interrupted the Jewish speaker.
Later, Shapiro spoke at University of California-Berkeley where an estimated $600,000 was spent on safety precautions for the event. These resources could be much better allocated to the many other needed functions of such a highly ranked university and is quite an unfortunate waste of university dollars. Even if someone considers the speaker’s opinions to be appalling enough to warrant protest, even the strongest of protestors cannot eradicate an ideology. Temporarily silencing speakers does not debate their claims, it just robs others of an opportunity to be exposed to contrasting opinions.
In recent months, there have been many efforts to prevent voices from being silenced on college campuses. The Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill intended to protect free speech on UW campuses by punishing students who disrupt events. The UW System Board of Regents also approved a policy to punish students who infringe on the rights of others. Those on the left worry legislation like this will cause a chilling of speech, but neither policy silences students who are expressing their free speech rights in a manner that does not silence anyone else.
Under these policies, students still have the right to exercise their own First Amendment rights, as long as they don’t impede the ability of others to do the same. We should not be afraid of bringing ideas to this campus that differ from the mainstream, even if some find these ideas “offensive.” Policies like these ensure UW System schools remain a marketplace of ideas where each student gets to sift and winnow in the search for truth, rather than a place where free speech is stifled.
If there was ever a time when free speech could not be more important, it would be now. We live in an increasingly polarized society where many blatantly refuse to listen to opposing viewpoints. The thought that free speech could be suppressed because some consider it to be dangerous to their own ideology is incredibly dangerous to the education UW students expect to receive in their time here.
Instead of silencing these “unacceptable” opinions, allowing the speaker to voice their opinion opens up the opportunity for dialogue about the subject, creating a learning experience for all involved. As college students, we should be raising our voices with the intention of informing or persuading others, not with the intention of silencing opinions that differ from our own.
Alesha Guenther ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the Deputy Communications Director of UW’s College Republicans.