Free Speech on Campuses

by Grace McCarthy

“No Grace shut up you don’t know what you’re saying, you’re lucky you’re a chick. I mean, if I was a girl my parents wouldn’t expect shit from me—like they don’t expect anything from my sister.” he said as my sarcastic “Well that was only slightly sexist, Dylan” was tuned out by the belittling chuckles and smiles of agreement from my three male friends, most of whom prided themselves on their liberalness, despite attending an all-boys private school in a wealthy suburb of New York City.

 In that moment, I came to understand that it is not our words alone that define who we are. Instead, it is the actions we take that give meaning to those same words that has perpetuated injustice throughout the United States. Dylan’s comment alone held little power over me, but the complicity of my six other friends caused my entire body to become tense in that moment, feeling utterly defenseless simply because of my body’s anatomy. When colleges and universities invite guest speakers who have a history of marginalizing a minority group, they are indistinguishable from the six high-school-aged boys who laughed and remained quiet as my vagina became a legitimate argument against my capabilities.

Free speech is the strongest pillar of democracy and I firmly believe in each and every individual’s right to voice his/her/their opinions and speak out against governments and opinions they disagree with. However, the difference between Ann Coulter tweeting, “If we took away women’s right to vote we’d never have to worry about another Democrat president” and providing her a platform to speak at UC Berkeley, an intellectual space that claims to advocate on behalf of diversity, is not minute. Ann Coulter has and should have every single right to voice her opinion; but when an esteemed university allows a student group to pay a woman with a history of racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and everything else the school vows to try and eliminate through programs such as Title IX and Affirmative Action thousands of dollars to voice her bigotry, they are subjugating female and minority voices—making a mockery of their everlasting struggle to be treated as equal in academic spaces.

While it is true that college campuses across the United States have become synonymous with leftist ideals, what is often misunderstood about these liberal bubbles is that they do not operate on terms of eradicating conservative voices, but on hopes of eliminating the “intellectual platform” that has allowed bigotry to become legitimized throughout the history of the United States. This issue is not about pitting liberals against conservatives—it is far deeper than that— and it is that exact misunderstanding that has allowed for this controversy to persist throughout this past year. No true student activist at a place like Middlebury or Berkeley would feel in any way threatened by the prospects of a student who believes in a small federal government and lower taxes; the issue arises, however when that same student begins to incorporate racial undertones into their argument against the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Liberal students on college campuses do not seek to silence conservative voices, but merely to advocate for the voices that have been disenfranchised since the founding of the United States.

We can not allow for the continuity of complicity in the face of inequality. It is all too often that a New York Times alert lights up my phone to tell me that President Trump has stated that non-white immigrants are from “shithole countries” or that Congresswoman Waters is a “low I.Q. individual” and I am brought back to the day that those three boys made a joke out of my desire to be treated as their equal. Arduous discussions of free speech and equality can not continue to be dominated by the controversy they create. In the fight towards equality, it is vital to recognize that the voices of the far-right do exist, but we must also recognize that campuses should not create a platform for bigotry to be permissible. We need to engage with all ideas, but never compromise what is morally just.