April 30, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: Does Free Speech Include the Right to Offend?

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This past March, a few pro-life activists set up a small demonstration on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara that included graphic images of aborted fetuses. Prof. Mireille Miller-Young, feminist studies, UCSB, who works on the campus, was so outraged and offended by the demonstrators that she stole one of their signs. When one of the activists tried to get her sign back, Miller-Young allegedly attacked her. She destroyed the sign when she got back to her office.

The Santa Barbara County district attorney has charged Miller-Young with theft, battery and vandalism.

That a professor — someone meant to facilitate free expression on campus — would behave in such a manner is disturbing enough. The most worrying aspect of this case, however, is that many students on the UCSB campus have backed the professor’s actions. They claim that the pro-life activists are “terrorists” who have no right to speak on the campus and are proud of their professor for fighting back.

It would be easy to dismiss this incident as isolated and not indicative of a larger problem on campuses nationwide. Unfortunately, the actions of this professor are just a very extreme application of the principle that free speech is secondary to a right not to be offended.  Increasingly, people believe that taking offense at something said or done, particularly if it occurs on a college campus, comes with the right to censor.

Examples of recent attempts to restrict the expression of viewpoints deemed offensive are far easier to find than they should be. At the University of Kansas, a professor was suspended for posting a tweet criticizing the National Rifle Association. At Brooklyn College, New York lawmakers threatened to cut the school’s funding if its political science department did not withdraw its sponsorship of an event featuring speakers who favored the boycott of Israel. At Johns Hopkins University, a pro-life group was denied recognition because student government members feared the group would make some students “uncomfortable.”

On campus, establishing a right to not be exposed to offensive things creates numerous harms. One of those harms is that it encourages censorship of those who wish to challenge the consensus on important issues. We will never have a campus where everyone is free to study and think as they choose if we are forced to accept the opinions dictated to us by the majority. The mentality that we need not permit the expression of opinions we deem offensive threatens to replace the pursuit of truth with an uncritical acceptance of prevailing views. On such a campus, political correctness is the ultimate value and independent analysis is devalued.

It is important to remember that those prevented from speaking on important issues are not the only ones who suffer. Other students are denied the chance to engage with a plethora of views. Enabling a free exchange of ideas produces students who better understand, and are in a better position to defend, their own positions through debate and discussion with others. To shelter students from speech they find offensive in the name of protecting them is to foster closed-mindedness and intolerance. When people do not understand the views of others, they will assume the worst about the people who hold them. With understanding comes respect and civil, open discourse.

Finally, our society as a whole is harmed when speech is censored because progress is ultimately hampered. The most celebrated social movements — from civil rights to gay rights — may not have happened if not for the right of free speech and the included right to deeply offend others. The notion that gay individuals deserve equal treatment might not have been heard on this campus a few decades ago if we believed that making people uncomfortable was grounds for censorship. We can move forward as a society only if we believe that even our most deeply held viewpoints are not beyond criticism. To assume that we have found the final and ultimate answer to anything would be naive.

It is best that our universities — and our society as a whole — keep themselves out of the necessarily biased task of deciding which viewpoints are too offensive to be expressed. By doing so, we can do justice to the spirit of the famous quotation: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!” If our university stands firmly behind anything, it should be that basic principle.