October 28, 2018

PARK | We Need Free Speech on Campus

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This past summer, I worked for Jeff Sessions in the Justice Department and exited the comfort of my liberal bubble for the first time in my life. Working with members of the Trump administration forced me to grapple with my prejudice as I really engaged with the other party. While it didn’t actually change my views, it helped me better understand the perspectives of people who cared just as much about the well being of people in this country and people who decided to dedicate their lives in pursuit of that cause. On this campus, we are so quick to write off someone based on party and so disinclined to actually listen and engage.

The issue of free speech on college campuses arose in the 1960s when it was the students who pushed administrators for greater rights. Now, nearly half of college students believe colleges should be able to restrict problematic speech. They wish to safeguard vulnerable communities from harm and make campuses inclusive for all. While well-intentioned, they may have forgotten the critical role freedom of speech played in nearly every social movement to protect minorities and bring about change.

Free speech is necessary on our campus.

Free speech paved the way for almost every major breakthrough in social progress — civil rights, women’s suffrage, marriage equality — and to restrict it would be antithetical to those need the most. Historically, hate speech clauses have been counter-effective in universities, often targeting those they’re meant to protect. When Michigan adopted a hate speech clause in the late ’80s, more than 20 black students were charged with racist speech, and not a single white student was punished.

Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, which is why when over 300 colleges and universities adopted hate speech codes in the early ’90s, each and every one challenged in the court was ruled unconstitutional. But beyond the legal and historical context, this shift in beliefs reflects a more concerning change in our universities—a decline in discourse.

Universities have long been centers of academic freedom, arenas for the competition of ideas, backdrops for rigorous discourse.But this is a far cry from what we see on our campuses today. Cornell boasts a diverse student body that is divided on race, religion, gender, but above all party. But our bubble of liberal sanctitude is not impervious to the national climate of affective polarization. When over 40 percent of Democrats and Republicans see the other side as a threat to the health of the nation, it’s difficult to have effective discourse.

I see it in our classrooms, where closet conservatives stay quiet so as to not harm their grades, in our Student Assembly, where a structure built upon identity politics continues to leave students feeling unrepresented, and on our slope, where the president of the Cornell Republicans got pushed the day after the 2016 election.

We recede into our echo-chambers and ignorance. The political aisle has become an abyss separating bodies of ideology and identity preventing either side from ever hearing more than the echoes of their own voices. To never have your worldview questioned, to never have to look your opponents in the eye, to receive nothing but affirmation from filtered online worlds and friends you interact with is terrifyingly easy on a campus so large.

We’ve become so inclined to disengage from our opponents without so much as a cursory hearing. We love nothing more than to write someone off as bigoted without getting at the underlying logic of their claims. What results is an overwhelming stifling of speech from both ends, with students scared to say anything potentially incriminating in the eyes of peers.

And that’s the most frightening part, because to choose to disengage entirely is to resign to ignorance and undermine the purpose of free expression. To discriminate against ideas, to dismiss entire lines of reasoning without even a cursory glance, to allow the university to determine what is and what is not allowed to be said on this campus, is to stifle the very discourse necessary for a truly democratic education.

This is not to say that protecting free speech means condoning violence; however if we are not open to the challenge of confrontation and the possibility of offense for the sake of true education, we will never break free of intellectual ignorance.

As Justice Louis Brandeis stated in his 1927 concurrence in Whitney v. California: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

I came to this campus hungry to learn-not just from my professors and TAs, but also from my peers. I came excited to engage in effective discourse with people to have my beliefs questioned, challenged, changed. We need to make conscious efforts to leave the comfort of our bubbles, to listen and evaluate other perspectives with open minds, in order to protect truly open democratic discourse.

Sarah Park is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. S*Park Notes runs every other Monday this semester. She can be reached at spark@cornellsun.com.