Whose Free Speech Are You Knocking?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because free speech isn’t about liking what’s being said.
By Ellen Lempres
Join us for Third Rail With OZY, a new TV show presented by OZY and WGBH, where we debate provocative hot topics with experts and celebrities every Friday night. The subject of this week’s show: “Is free speech alive and well?” Tune in Friday at 8:30 p.m. ET on PBS, or online, and be sure to weigh in on social media (#ThirdRailPBS) and/or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your take!
Missed the previous episodes? Catch up here!
Liberals are forgetting their liberal values. Case in point? For as wrong as it was for President Donald Trump to lambaste football players exercising their right to freedom of expression, UC Berkeley’s student-led effort to host a “Free Speech Week” featuring uber-conservative speakers failed miserably, resulting in cancellation. Barring speech or expressions we disagree with, whether it’s taking a knee during the national anthem or far-right rhetoric on our college greens, is barring someone from expressing their views. And that’s a slippery slope.
I grew up in Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, where I walked down Telegraph Avenue past murals of Mario Savio speaking at Sproul Plaza and drank hot chocolate at Free Speech Cafe. I believed in free speech before I even knew what it meant. So I was taken aback more than a decade later when my college, Claremont McKenna, like many others, got swept up in controversy last year over student protesters trying to shut down a conservative speaker’s event.
… students should have the freedom to make their own decisions and attend schools that trust their students to decipher the truth on their own.
The First Amendment doesn’t apply at my small liberal arts college in Southern California because it’s a private institution — as opposed to public schools, which are bound by the Constitution. Still, the “liberal” in liberal arts refers to the idea of freedom, and students should have the freedom to make their own decisions and attend schools that trust their students to decipher the truth on their own. They are, after all, designed to provide students with the knowledge and opportunity to think freely.
Last April, I tried to help ensure that Heather Mac Donald, a conservative political commentator, could exercise her freedom of expression against the protests of my classmates. As associate student manager of the Rose Institute of State and Local Government — the organization that hosted Mac Donald on campus — my job was to serve as a liaison between the students and the institute. About a week before Mac Donald’s talk, I heard that students were going to be protesting, and as the event approached, calls for protests morphed into demonization of Mac Donald, as well as vilification of my co-workers. The two previous student managers were publicly targeted as racist on social media, and several of my co-workers were added to the “Shady People of Color List.”
On the day of the speech, we ensured that there were fences and security outside the event, but it soon became clear that these precautions were not enough: Students surrounded the building where Mac Donald was set to speak, accusing her of “white supremacist and fascist ideologies,” and chanting about her racist tendencies, shutting down her speech.
The whole ordeal left me feeling conflicted. While I strongly disagreed with Mac Donald’s viewpoints and thought she shouldn’t speak if people were going to feel victimized by it, I also felt that Mac Donald, like the rest of us, should have the right to express her opinions. College students don’t need to be sheltered from controversial viewpoints. So, despite my liberal upbringing, I walked away from junior year feeling uncertain about freedom of speech … and then I visited Morocco.
A month after the Mac Donald fiasco, I was living and working in Marrakesh. On one of my first days there, while riding the public bus, I asked a Moroccan about her thoughts on Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. Confused, she explained that she didn’t know him personally. I clarified, asking her what she thought of his policies, and in a hushed tone she explained that Moroccans don’t have a choice; they must like the king.
This gave me a new perspective on America’s freedom of speech, and when I returned to Berkeley as the city and campus were consumed by controversies over Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon, I was adamant that free speech has to go both ways. Whether we like it or not.
Colleges are within their rights to ban incitements to violence. But maintaining echo chambers of the same liberal ideas begins to look a lot like Morocco’s muzzle. Liberal arts colleges are based upon the same liberal notions as our nation — that citizens should be free to make decisions of their own. If these schools care about autonomy and trust students’ ability to make decisions, they must also take freedom of expression seriously and strengthen our ability to hear, process and decide upon a wide array of opinions.
Once we start claiming that some speech is worthy of protection and others are not, we are taking a ride on King Mohammed’s bus.
- Ellen Lempres, OZY AuthorContact Ellen Lempres