February 6, 2020

WILK | The Fallacy of Free Speech

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In February of last year, the Cornell Political Union withdrew their invitation to conservative speaker Jannique Stewart to speak on the topic of abortion on campus. Stewart then took to Facebook, accusing the CPU of what she called “viewpoint discrimination.”

This instance, parallel to countless others on college campuses across America, invigorated a debate on the ethics of the censorship of free speech on college campuses, which is confusing because Cornell didn’t bar Stewart from attending. It was the student organization she was in contact with which decided, upon further reflection of her discriminatory ideologies, that they no longer wished for her to attend. Their concern was that her inflammatory anti-LGBT rhetoric would incite backlash and, therefore, be a risk to her and their members, requiring security fees they stated were unaffordable at the time.

Still, online and on-campus, people were quick to denounce this as an offense on the free circulation of conservative ideas. Claiming that canceling her event because of her outright condemnation of LGBT individuals would be an injustice as it would shelter this community from viewpoints they will and, ostensibly, ought to encounter in the ‘real world.’

But the idea that protecting people against hate speech would be a disservice to them as it would coddle them against harsh realities is a sadistic and blatant display of the ignorance offered by privilege. For the people who are the victims of this type of speech, hate speech — for the gay kids, black kids, trans kids, Muslim kids and countless others — the world has always been too real in this aspect.

But, often, the prospect of censoring hate speech on campus is met with the tired but still piercing yells of those deeply invested in bigotry. They claim that such censorship impedes the right of free speech. This argument is warped with a lack of understanding of the first amendment, its history and what it actually means and entails. Contemporary, widely conservative-backed, “free speech” preaching exists in discourse as a cultural and ideological gathering point that fails to give thought to the politics of speech in this country. It’s a distraction, mostly, from the points we should really be paying attention to. As much as it goes unacknowledged, speech is already censored. We censor it in favor of values we consider to be more important: Privacy, property rights and economic efficiency, among others. A bank can’t misrepresent an interest on a loan to you. People aren’t allowed to tap your phone calls. Companies have strict laws on false advertising. All of these instances are cases of free speech, or at least issues that attorneys have attested are related to free speech. However, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that none of these items are protected by the first amendment because of an interest in protecting other individual rights and freedoms.

The gag is that free speech has never been a guarantee in this country. There is a significant and historic imbalance in whose voices are allowed to maneuver the ears of society freely. The wealthy and powerful can say, for the most part, whatever they please. Moreover, there is a likelihood that whatever they say will be said without consequences, that it will be heard and that it will be responded to. Those without power, or those who criticize institutions wherein power lies, are met with state-sanctioned efforts to silence them.

This trend is just as historically rich in conversations specific to college campuses. Actions taken around hate speech are skewed towards silencing counter-protests by unprotected people, which is where a more traditional breach of first amendment rights would come into play. Why is it that civil rights protestors, and similarly, Black Lives Matter protestors, were met with police violence and wrongful imprisonment, but an invited campus speaker who advocates explicitly for genocide is entitled to be received with courteous silence? The all-too-often ignored reality is that “radical” protestors are met with police violence while fascists are provided escorts.

Campuses have a duty to their students, so it is in the best interest of Cornell to produce a learning environment that is safe, encouraging, protective of and dedicated to those students. And hate speech is not appropriate for that type of place. Institutions have power, and that power should not be exercised against the will of the students. If it is the will of their students to make efforts to de-platform or protest a speaker, campuses are right by honoring that duty. What value is it to forgo that commitment? What positive is brought on by sacrificing that diplomacy?

Hate is not as simple as kicking sand in the face of another on the playground. More accurately, it’s the tool of tyrants.  By endorsing immoral figures, Cornell perhaps inadvertently threatens their students. It’s irresponsible for any institution to work against the interest of its constituents and laborers. To spell it out for you, it’s good not to hate.

Alecia Wilk is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.