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Free Speech On Campus: Taking It Upon Ourselves

by Daniel Zahn

When we ask that the university silences people on our campus, we ask it to do a disservice to ourselves and this university. One of the greatest lessons a university can teach its students doesn’t happen in the classroom. You can’t enroll in the course, and you don’t get a grade or credit for it. It’s a lesson in American democracy, in American history, and in American tradition. It’s a lesson in free speech.

How can we learn to engage in productive discourse with those whom we contradict if the university silences them? If we suppress others’ views, then those views remain static, and we let those views fester within that person. No one will correct them, and no one will show them their flaws. No one will engage with them on the topic, and no one will change their mind. Silence never solves intolerance, because silence and ignorance breed intolerance.

When you demand the university decide which speech to allow and which speech to censor, you willingly demand the university violate the freedom of speech that our Constitution guarantees us. It is not up to the university to decide which speech it will and will not tolerate; it’s up to us. It is not up to the university to punish or reward certain speech; it’s up to us. It is not up to the university to make sure certain voices are heard and others are lambasted; it’s up to us.

Society regulates speech — not the government and not the university. If you see or hear something you find distasteful, you speak up against it. You don’t ask that the university silences it. If you see or hear your classmate express something horrid, you respectfully disagree with it and try to change their mind. You don’t ask that the university punishes them. You must realize the power you have as a student to influence your peers in a way that the university cannot.

I truly believe that when the university says it’s committed to diversity and inclusion, it means it. I think the university makes an increasing effort to cultivate an open and welcoming environment. Our community should match that effort, especially in areas that the university cannot. The university must permit almost all speech. The university cannot silence hate speech, intolerant speech, white supremacists, Nazis, and the like — as horrible as they are. Under the current interpretation of the Constitution, the university cannot take the content of the speech or the subjects which the speech address as a reason to limit it (see: R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul).

Only our community can take the content of speech and decide whether or not we will listen. Our community can decide what we will tolerate. But, we don’t do it by limiting others freedom of speech. We do it by exercising our own. We do it by changing minds, by being inclusive. We do it by speaking up, by speaking out. The university doesn’t have the same power that we do. We must recognize that and take it upon ourselves to improve our university.

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