The right to freedom of speech is the hallmark of the American democratic experiment. The United States was the first nation to guarantee an individual’s right to speak freely and openly about one’s thoughts and ideas. It was, and remains, a radical concept. Today, speech is constantly restricted — even in the most democratic of societies. And it appears as if the restrictions that chain free speech are beginning to wash upon our shores as well.
The events in Charlottesville, Va. were, quite clearly, an egregious and despicable act of hatred, bigotry and racism. Any sensible person would agree that the actions taken by the radical neo-Nazis and white nationalists that occupied Charlottesville’s streets represent all that is wrong and evil with our society. However, even these radicals have a right to free speech.
Obviously, I would rather that these deranged lunatics keep their mouths shut and mind their own business. It would be ideal if those who harbor the most deplorable of thoughts and philosophies were to just disappear and leave us all to live our lives in peace. Yet if we try to achieve this ideal by preventing freedom of expression, we risk running a very slippery slope.
If the government, or any body for that matter, has the ability to censor one group of people, a door is opened to future suppressions. The history of tyranny is laden with examples of governments removing freedoms of expression from fringe groups, and then using such removals as justification for steadily removing the freedoms of more and more groups. In essence, the protection of a white nationalist’s freedom of speech is the protection of our own right to speak freely. But there are issues that are boiling that extend well beyond the range of white nationalism.
In 2014, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to speak at Rutgers University. Yet this decision greatly angered students, who were upset at Rice’s involvement in the Iraq War. As a result, students launched a massive — and ultimately successful — effort to pressure Rice to rescind the convocation invitation. This event marks one of the most troubling and disturbing attacks on freedom of thought and speech.
Surely most Americans agree that the Iraq War was an unmitigated disaster and a largely unnecessary conflict. And it is quite clear that as President Bush’s national security advisor, Rice played a role in facilitating American involvement in the region. Yet a poor policy decision does not discredit the ideas of an individual — especially an intellectual powerhouse such as Rice.
By forcing Rice to rescind Rutgers’s speaking invitation, the students at the university were essentially stating that anyone who does not align with their political views is not welcome to speak. And, unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. From Ann Coulter at Berkeley to Ben Shapiro at Cal State, college campuses across the nation are beginning to embrace these sorts of restrictions. If one does not possess the political views of the students, they are unwelcome to speak on their campus.
This philosophy is disturbing on a number of grounds. First of all, these refusals to listen to another person’s ideas and opinions carry a sort of medieval ignorance. Ostracizing those who do not adhere to the majority view is the sort of thinking that led to Galileo and Darwin’s rejection from society. Furthermore, refusing to listen to someone else’s ideas doesn’t make you principled — it makes you weak and insecure. Those who are truly grounded in their ideals and principles are those who truly understand the other side of the argument.
But perhaps the most concerning aspect of this philosophy is that further deepens the divide of this country. You may think that Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro’s ideas are outlandish — but nearly half the country agrees with these people. By refusing to listen to their thoughts and ideas, you are effectively refusing to understand how the other half of this country thinks.
Yet this suppression of free speech is not just limited to college kids on liberal campuses — conservatives are just as guilty as liberals at silencing those they disagree with. Many conservatives seem to genuinely believe that American liberalism is a sort of disease. They believe that liberalism is an ideology whose sole purpose is to hurt hard-working Americans and benefit those who contribute nothing to society (think welfare recipients, college students and the unemployed). Because of this mentality, they too refuse to allow liberals to speak their mind.
As a moderate, I tend to see both sides of the argument. And as someone who personally knows a great deal of liberals and conservatives, I know for a fact that their hatred of one another is driven by their unwillingness to respect the other’s right to speak freely. Each side refuses to truly listen and understand the other side — and as a result, misinformation is spread and people get very, very angry. A fellow student in one of my classes once stated that people who are pro-life want to punish a woman for having sex; a conservative once tried to convince me that liberals want to let Muslims enter the country so that they can establish Sharia law. These utterly ridiculous, offensive and wrong claims are the product of a repression of a free and open dialogue. If civility is to return to our civic discourse, then freedom of speech — and the willingness to actually listen to others’ ideas — must reign as the core of our nation’s principles.
Michael Glanzel is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cornell Shrugged appears alternate Mondays this semester.