A.P. Turek ’20
Free speech isn’t always liberating, or equalizing, or even always free. I’d like to respond to an article from last week which argued that free speech needs to be reaffirmed, particularly on college campuses like Trinity. Let me be the first to warn that the reckless pursuit of free speech is a dangerous thing. That article is very convincing in its argument: free speech is a positive good that encourages the toleration of various opinions through the medium of societal-level discussions. Free speech is silenced because some speech is seen as violent, a claim the author rejects. Speech is being curtailed on college campuses, a place, if anything, for more discussion and debate than anywhere else, and that’s a profoundly bad thing. To quote that article, “in times like these, this small college needs to roar like a lion to protect free speech.” Why would I want to write a rebuttal of this easily defensible claim? Because it’s a lie.
Speech in America isn’t free. There are limitations on what is legal, and what is not. Some speech is not constitutionally protected, like slander or libel, or the advocacy of immediate force to provoke violence. Take, for instance, Virginia v. Black (2003), where several Klansmen burned crosses in the yards of African American neighbors. Such an act of speech was found unconstitutional: threats of intimidation are not permissible uses of free speech. Speech can be violent, and the protection of those who use speech to silence deserve no protection. Which brings me to the second claim made by the author, that what is happening on college campuses is the repression of free speech. It isn’t. The author cites the intense revulsion of UC Berkley students to Ben Shapiro’s planned talk there. This is an intensely bad-faith argument. There’s a bait-and-switch happening here, where the censoring of racist, homophobic, and outright oppressive language is rebranded as the suppression of free speech. This has the effect of reconjuring figurative cross-burning as brave defenders of the truth (who, not coincidentally, are conservatives) against an oppressive (and liberal) government who seeks to see them destroyed.
This is not to equate Ben Shapiro, or any other group mentioned by the author, with the KKK. But that’s the catch. Consider the term ‘fascism.’ Immediately one thinks of goose-stepping Nazis, the classic villains, human manifestations of evil. The apparentness of the evil of fascism, however, makes it harder to use that term in good faith precisely because it is assumed to mean the most extreme form—Nazis. But there are non-Nazi fascists, in the same manner as there are acts of hate speech that aren’t cross-burnings. Ben Shapiro is without a doubt one of those people. He is not a symbol of free speech, but a prejudiced hatemonger who masquerades behind the façade of free speech. He rejects the scientific consensus when it comes to climate change, he campaigns to restrict women’s access to abortion rights, and vehement rejection of trans rights. Ben Shapiro believes trans people suffer from mental illness, a stance he has strongly defended, and one which played a major role in his reception at UC Berkley.
Do we accept when a public intellectual publicly denounces the existence of an entire group of people? Because that’s not really a question about free speech. The author of the article would like you to believe college campuses are targeting free speech, are enforcing certain opinions. But that’s a deliberately misleading reframing of the real question—do we defend those who oppress others. Let’s imagine you’re a trans person. When a public figure says your life is a lie, and that you suffer from a mental illness, that isn’t just some exercise of free speech. The effect is comparable to repression. When one person uses free speech to deny the existence of an entire group of people, there are countless thousands who are now unable to speak, unable to participate in this vaunted ideal of free speech. Free speech has the potential to oppress and to hurt without question. America is reaching a point when accepting those who seek to oppress under the guise of free speech is intolerable. We should not rally in the defense of fascism, but rather question those who claim to be oppressed when they oppress others. We must not sacrifice democracy on the altar of free speech.