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Free Speech on Campus?

By Editor Christopher Pak ‘19

· Christopher Pak

Image from Wikimedia.

Earlier this month, Milo Yiannopoulos was a planned speaker on the University of California-Berkeley campus. Yiannopoulos is a senior editor for Breitbart News and is known for his controversial far-right statements. In retaliation to Yiannopoulos’ invitation, thousands of student protestors gathered on the Berkeley campus and voiced their discontent. While the protest was intended to be peaceful, a handful of non-student protestors resorted to violence. In the end, the Yiannopoulos event was cancelled and the protest became a national spectacle.

The event reignited the debate surrounding free speech, specifically on college campuses. Proponents of political correctness argue that racism, sexism, and other beliefs that degrade and dehumanize should not be tolerated. Conversely, opponents argue that political correctness stifles the constitutional right to free speech.

The debate around free speech often boils down to one question: How far should the freedom of speech extend? But, I do not think this question probes far enough.

Stephen Miller, senior advisor to President Donald Trump, has recently been receiving a lot of notoriety. Miller got his start as a political figure matriculating through the overwhelmingly liberal Santa Monica High School. During his high school career, Miller was booed off stage by 4,000 of his fellow students for making an inflammatory statement: “Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up my trash when we have plenty of janitors who are paid to do it for us?!”

I also graduated from Santa Monica High School. I can personally recount the rarity and novelty of finding a right-leaning student. But, I can also vividly recount the loud community shout-down those right-leaning students received when their political views were revealed.

The left is baffled how such a liberal community produced one of the most conservative talking heads in the nation. But to me, the answer is quite simple – no one bothered to persuade him otherwise.

Rather than question to whom freedom of speech should apply, we should ask ourselves how to best respond to our political opponent’s use of free speech. Are we, as the left, approaching political differences in a positive way? Is the correct response to opposition to drown them in a cacophony of shouting?

Universities and college campuses are large platforms of attention. Any speaker who obtains the sponsorship of a campus gains access to a wider audience. Understanding this, it is easy to see why many student groups call on their administrators to deny access to speakers who they believe do not hold merit to the platform. Why would you want to give a racist a larger audience?

However, there are some realities that are often overlooked by student groups and the left. Speakers who are asked to speak at college campuses have often established a reputation amongst their base. By denying them access to a student audience, the exchange of ideas is denied; those speakers go back to their base and the echo chamber continues.

Should we not hold ourselves accountable for denying dialogue with those that disagree with us? Should not our goal be to persuade people of our value’s merits rather than sweeping dissidents to the side? What better place to critique ideas and logic than at a university?

Yes, I am a firm believer in the use of political correctness. It is abhorrent that some on the right disregard the weight of words and continue to offend without regard. But, instead of shutting down those who disparage political correctness, let us convince them otherwise.

Writer and internet icon John Green, took interest in a couple of lyrics from Kanye West’s “Power”:

They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation

Well that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation

While Green’s video parsed multiple meanings behind West’s lyrics, one meaning Green concluded was that “hostility generally gets answered with hostility.” How can you expect to have a productive conversation if one side begins by screaming ad hominems? Green elaborates saying that “screaming at each other is a bad way of listening but I think it’s also a bad way of getting heard.” If our goal is to persuade other people and add to a political coalition than we need to change our approach to opposition.

Johns Hopkins University is not untouched by this debate. In 2015, the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium (MSE) invited renowned and controversial lawyer Alan Dershowitz to campus. This prompted several student groups to circulate petitions calling for his removal from the MSE speaking slot.

When Dershowitz finally spoke on campus, protestors left the auditorium holding signs which read “You Are Rape Culture” and “Stop Defending Occupation.” In response, Dershowitz called on the protesters to “stay and ask me hard questions, challenge me intellectually.”

While it is questionable whether putting a student toe-to-toe with a veteran lawyer would be grounds for a fair intellectual debate, there are other actions the MSE staff could have taken. For instance, the MSE staff could have reconstructed the event into a panel with a wide variety of notable thinkers.

There is a sentiment that the moderates are fading away in this nation and in its wake, a large chasm between the left and the right. The left should not be afraid to bridge this gap and invite dialogue between the two sides. Politics should be determined on the merit of ideas rather than a shouting match between ideologues.

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