October 28, 2020

Campus Freedom of Speech Withers

Liam Siegler '23

On the Importance of Free Speech

Liam Siegler

As the semester begins, I feel compelled to write on the subject of free speech. The way we engage in the exchanging of ideas, thoughts, and opinions is increasingly being undermined by attitudes detrimental to national, congregational, and relational unity. It’s becoming commonplace, especially in academia, for individuals to be silenced, condemned, or deplatformed for expressing alternative viewpoints, ideas, and opinions. This isn’t a partisan issue. Both the left and the right are guilty. If you don’t believe me, here are only a few examples of what has happened over the past five years:

  • Students vehemently demanded Two Yale professors to be removed after they co-authored a well-poised, civil email on the subject of Halloween appropriation. The outcry was so great, one person commented, that it was as if “someone wiped out an entire Indian village.” 
  • The University of Scranton student government denied recognition to a campus chapter of Turning Point USA, seemingly for their political views. On social media, the Student Body President indicated that even if the club was voted in, he would use his veto authority to strike down the decision. Even after being called out for viewpoint discrimination, the school administration refused to act. 
  • At Portland State University, a conservative member of a “Patriot Prayer” group,  announced he would aggressively show up to an event put on by the Portland State International Socialist Organization (ISO). The campus police responded by cancelling their meeting entirely, against the wishes of the club. In another incident at the same university, a student disrupted a College Republicans event by ringing a cowbell, yelling, and standing in front of their projector. He told them, “We want to deplatform you. We want you to stop f***ing talking.” 
  • A Professor was banned from Drexel University for mocking the idea of “White Genocide” in a satiracle Twitter post. 
  • A Princeton Professor received death threats after she strongly criticized President Trump during a commencement address. 
  • A student at Wesleyan University published an op-ed on the school newspaper’s opinion section critiquing some of the tactics used by Black Lives Matter. The response? A boycott. They recycled issues in the trash, and a resolution was proposed to defund the 147-year old paper entirely. 

These are but a few examples. There are countless more. If you are doubtful, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has a database on the speech policies of over 400 public and private colleges throughout the nation. I strongly recommend checking them out. They have compiled an extensive amount of research and have documented hundreds of infringements against free speech. This year, they ranked 24.2% of US schools with a “red-light” for policies that “unambiguously [infringe] on protected expression”. In the same report, they ranked 63.9% of schools with a “yellow-light” for policies which “could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict relatively narrow categories of speech.” FIRE concluded that “demands for censorship of student and faculty speech—whether originating on or off campus—are common, and universities continue to investigate and punish students and faculty over protected expression.” 

Why is this important, one might ask? To put it simply: the future of our country rests in part, on our ability to preserve the value of free speech in the public sphere. As stated in the recently published Philadelphia Statement: 

“Our liberty and our happiness depend upon the maintenance of a public culture in which freedom and civility coexist—where people can disagree robustly, even fiercely, yet treat each other as human beings—and, indeed, as fellow citizens—not mortal enemies…A society that lacks comity and allows people to be shamed or intimidated into self-censorship of their ideas and considered judgments will not survive for long.”

 If these stories and statistics tell us anything, it’s that free expression is being threatened by a politically toxic, intolerant culture. Divisions in partisan and ideological thought are increasingly breeding a climate where people act as if it’s a virtue to silence, shame, and insult those who espouse politically controversial, contrary, or even “offensive” ideas. I am not alone in my analysis. A letter from Harper’s Magazine, signed by more than 100 authors, professors, and journalists, describes this exact phenomenon. From their perspective: 

“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted…censoriousness is… spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty…it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

It’s an unfortunate fact, but this is the state of discourse in American society. Do you disagree? If so, then please ponder over this question: why is it hard for so many to talk about either the 2020 election, or issues of social justice, without questioning someone’s or some group’s moral character and empathy for human life?

Oftentimes it seems that we as a society are incapable of not acting this way. Today, there is little room for having a “wrong opinion”. Groupthink and ideological blacklisting is far too easy and tempting, regardless of where you lean politically. 

These are the attitudes that we as a community should proactively avoid. We need to earnestly foster an environment where free speech is able to thrive; where we can engage with a wide array of thought, irrespective of its perceived insensiblities or validity. As Christians, we have to do better. We can’t be adding more fuel to the fire. Society is fragmented enough. 

Our alternative must be to engage with one another in gentleness, courtesy, and love (Titus 3:2, Colossians 3:8-9). The way forward must be one where our unity in Christ is valued above today’s political and cultural divides (Ephesians 4:25). This involves talking in a way where “no corrupt talk” comes from our mouths, but only that which builds each other up (Ephesians 4:29). Yes, this would imply that we shouldn’t shut people down, censor, or shame. Does this mean we must agree with everything everyone says? No. We are to avoid falsehood, and that most certainly will imply potential disagreement. What it does mean however (and perhaps this is the greatest virtue of free expression) is that we have a responsibility to counter bad speech with more wholesome, better, and winsome forms of persuasion. 

In a time where our example matters more than ever, the Gordon student body must stand out from the world in this regard. I am hopeful we can.

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