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Columns, Opinions

Steinman ’19: Free speech is not the problem on campuses

By
Opinions Editor
Thursday, March 16, 2017

The debate over free speech on college campuses and in academia fits into a neat, tightly woven narrative that goes something like this: Rather than inherit the mantle of their student-activist predecessors, the free speech advocates of the 1960s, college students today choose to remain in their safe spaces and repress viewpoints counter to their own. This characterization is enormously misleading. Yet it seems to have been taken up by those on the left who may have been a part of those original student movements, as well as by those on the right who probably view those movements far more favorably now than they might have at the time.

Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont, is ground zero for the debate this month. The American Enterprise Institute’s chapter there, with a cosponsorship from the political science department, invited Charles Murray, a conservative sociologist and author, to give a talk. Murray is the author of a 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” which posited that differences in IQ among races were genetic and were to blame for social problems like crime and poverty, a claim that was emphatically debunked over 20 years ago. The last time he spoke at Middlebury eight years ago, Murray “insulted the black students in the audience, telling them they would be better off going to a state university rather than being over their heads at an ‘elite’ institution that they did not really earn the right to attend,” Middlebury Associate Professor of Sociology Linus Owens wrote in a piece on Medium. This time around, as was widely documented by the national press, student protesters shut down the planned public lecture and attempted to disrupt a private webcast frantically arranged as a replacement. Once the webcast concluded, a confrontation occurred between the protesters and Murray, who was accompanied by Middlebury Professor of Political Science Allison Stanger. In the ensuing violence, Stanger suffered a neck injury and eventually was diagnosed with a concussion. Obviously, violence of this kind is deplorable in its own right and pulls the nation’s attention away from the message of the protest. The validity of protesting Murray was twisted and lost; coming so soon after a similar protest at the University of California at Berkeley, the events at Middlebury were easily shaped to fit the narrative that college students are too emotionally sensitive to handle even mildly dissenting viewpoints.

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a column expressing my fear that echo chambers — the widening gap between the news and opinions that people on each side of the political spectrum are exposed to — were eroding not just our political discourse but also our sense of reality. It’s been a year of alternative facts, fake news and a wider spread of hateful rhetoric than I could have imagined in March 2016. The murmured dissent in President Trump supporters’ echo chambers a year ago, unheard by the rest of us, is now in White House press reports and on CNN. There is no more hiding — which is why I don’t understand the oft-repeated maxim, particularly in recent months, that today’s college students are coddled. The pejorative descriptor is generally applied to us in articles and columns about the on-campus spread of trigger warnings, safe spaces, checking one’s privilege and other omens of the imminent destruction of free speech everywhere. Something is obviously wrong. Political dialogue in America is acutely, if not terminally, ill. But free speech, the availability of platforms to spread any and all ideas, regardless of merit, ideology or highbrow magnitude, has never been freer. Ideas — well-formulated and ignorant, hateful and kind — are being shared faster and wider than ever before. Free speech and expression in the 1960s was truly threatened, thanks to a limited number of news outlets and a repressive political climate. But that is no longer the case. Far from being coddled, today’s students are spending their intellectually formative years being exposed to the most extreme rhetoric — from all sides of the political spectrum — ever espoused in American politics.

For immigrants, Muslims, women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and any number of other marginalized groups, engaging with news is not an impersonal activity. The average person today spends eight hours a day consuming media, and I imagine that figure is considerably higher for Americans. These eight hours are filled with messages from the most powerful platform in the nation, and perhaps in the world — the White House — telling them that they are subhuman. There is no discourse to be had there, no lofty, idealistic, objective exchange of ideas. And while it’s true that the First Amendment doesn’t specify that speech has to be good to be free, it also doesn’t specify that all speech deserves the legitimacy of a college podium and an introduction from a university president, as was the case at Middlebury. Listening to a speaker tell my classmates of color that they don’t belong here doesn’t make me more of an intellectual or introduce me to “bold inquiry and fearless debate,” as Frank Bruni yearned for in a New York Times column this week.

Inquiry and debate are surely needed. Conservative speakers are invited to speak on campuses every day, and their talks generally go off without a hitch. Just last week here at Brown, two Republican political analysts, a Fox News contributor and a former advisor to Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, discussed the future of the Republican Party with the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones. This evidently peaceful event was not picked up by any national news outlets, and I would imagine most panels and guest lectures hosted daily at American colleges and universities follow a similar pattern. We students confront dissenting and, yes, offensive ideas every day and react to them privately and publicly — probably more often than adults do. But when the decision comes to defend the humanity and worth of our marginalized classmates or to yield passively to the erosion of decency and acceptance, it is strikingly obvious which path is the bold and fearless one.

In their editorial covering the events at Middlebury, the New York Times opened with the same John Stuart Mill quote a student used to introduce Murray regarding all dissenters, “Truth would lose something by their silence.” In this age, with so much at risk, the world would lose something by ours.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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9 Comments

  1. Man with Axe says:

    You wrote: “For immigrants, Muslims, women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and any number of other marginalized groups, engaging with news is not an impersonal activity….These…hours are filled with messages from the most powerful platform in the nation, and perhaps in the world — the White House — telling them that they are subhuman. There is no discourse to be had there, no lofty, idealistic, objective exchange of ideas.”

    This is so hyperbolic as to be patently false. But I sense that you use this extreme language to argue that speech which is critical of these “marginalized groups,” (which I have come to understand means “groups that we must coddle because their feelings are very easily hurt”) should not be allowed, and can be squelched because these people cannot bear to be hear anything said against them.

    Immigrants: Is saying that immigration should be limited, as it has always been, the same as calling those to whom admission is denied “subhuman?” Is noticing that lots of Muslims have extreme beliefs about women, gays, apostates, honor killing, treatment of infidels, to name a few, that we would not accept from anyone else, the same as calling Muslims “subhuman?” Is discussing the education performance gap between Asians and whites on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other the same as calling the latter groups “subhuman?”

    I’m going to bet that people who believe as you do have no problem entertaining severely critical speech about men, whites, Jews, Israel, Republicans, and Christians. And you defend your double standard by using your absurd notion that these groups are not “marginalized.” Just a question, then. What makes someone marginalized? Or is that just one more leftist trope that every leftist college student has learned to parrot?

  2. The Most Equal says:

    If the students find the University’s choice of speakers so appalling, why are they even at Middlebury in the first place? And what exactly do they think will happen if Charles Murray is allowed to speak? He did end up speaking on livestream – did anything horrible end up happening? That’s right – the protesters physically assaulted one of the professors who was hosting the talk and she ended up being hospitalized. The fact that you spent two or three sentences on this and the rest of your six paragraphs on their supposed right to shut down speakers with whom they disagree shows how twisted your priorities are.

    “And while it’s true that the First Amendment doesn’t specify that speech has to be good to be free, it also doesn’t specify that all speech deserves the legitimacy of a college podium and an introduction from a university president, as was the case at Middlebury.”

    The first amendment doesn’t say that everyone deserves to speak at a college campus?Really? I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t read this article – thanks for that incredibly insightful analysis. I’m sure your parents are satisfied that they’re getting a great value for the $67,000 they spent on your Brown education this year.

    Students on college campuses like Brown and Middlebury are among the safest, most privileged people ever to exist on plant earth. If that doesn’t make them happy, nothing will.

  3. 1st Amend. says:

    So, Brown University Women are members of a “marginalized Group”? The oppression narrative never ends.

  4. Ron Ruggieri says:

    How sardonically amusing : my short comment on the above article ” FREE SPEECH NOT A PROBLEM… ” is still ” pending ” after four days. Sharp editors -and champions of FREE SPEECH, to be sure- at the Brown Daily Herald.

    • 1st Amend. says:

      Good luck with that, if your piece would offend the writer of the original article, you will be silenced. So you have to be clever to get your point across.

      • Ron Ruggieri says:

        My point was that private ownership of the news media is invariably an obstacle to ” free speech ” right. Nasty comment.

        • Mine was pending on a separate article and was never published. The comment itself was left-wing. Not everything is a conspiracy.

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