Today, we see conservatives and the alt-right everywhere, including on our campus, taking ownership of free speech. After his speech was cancelled at UC Berkeley, Milo Yiannopolous stated, “The Left is absolutely terrified of free speech.” Trump responded to the incident by tweeting, “No free speech… NO FEDERAL FUNDS.” College Republicans at UCI host regular events to promote free speech, most recently with posters listing “microaggressions.”
But why has free speech become a conservative outcry? Why have liberals agreed to sacrifice free speech to the Right? Free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment, and all of us, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum, should recognize and uphold it. In fact, liberals, minorities, and proponents of social justice should be at the forefront of ensuring its protection for everyone.
After all, in the past few decades, the Left was the primary beneficiary of free speech. Civil rights activists in the 1960s were able to express their ideas against generations of prevailing racist attitudes only because the Supreme Court prevented southern state governments from suppressing the activists’ free speech. Likewise, labor unions, religious minorities, civil rights protestors and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators all exercised their free speech right to express their viewpoints. UC Berkeley, which has lately been criticized for suppressing free speech, led a Free Speech Movement to insist that university administrations acknowledge students’ free speech on college campuses.
Recently, the notion of free speech has been tainted, especially among the Left. Many of us associate “free speech” with “hate speech.” We think we are being compassionate towards others by seeking to ban speech that we find offensive.
But doing so sets a dangerous precedent. By banning speech, we are preventing dialogue, and closing the opportunity to improve our own arguments. Silencing a person doesn’t ban a hateful ideology; it merely places the ideology underground, allowing it to resurface later, and likely more powerfully and with more sympathy and support. Instead, we should respond to an idea at face value, using clear, articulate arguments to uproot the idea altogether. This opportunity is what makes our country different from others. Ideally, we should be able to express our ideas — no matter how vile — without fearing silencing by the government, as is the case in many parts of the world today.
Moreover, quelling a person’s speech only creates sympathy for his side. Regardless of whether the speaker had egregious ideas to share, stopping his speech makes him the victim, and makes those who halted his speech the aggressors. In the case of Milo, those who sought to halt his bigoted speech became seen as the bigots. Instead, a better means of response would be to ask good questions during the Q&A, publish stories fact-checking his statements the following day, and arranging a peaceful demonstration in support of the very minority groups Milo condemns.
However, the Left isn’t the only side to blame for quelling speech. The Right, which claims to champion free speech, doesn’t do so either. President Trump, for instance, may tweet about free speech as in the case of Berkeley, but he attacks several media outlets, claiming the media to be “the enemy of the American people.”
Additionally, many conservatives conflate being anti-PC with being a proponent of free speech, so that they may criticize minorities under the guise of free speech. If people use their free speech to promote bigotry, hatred and fear, then, naturally, they should expect to face social criticism, even if they cannot legally be silenced. The Right — especially on our campus — understands the impact of social criticism, and so they often attempt to silence protesters and activists by publicly humiliating them on various conservative media outlets. Both groups should recognize that peaceful protesters are also exercising their right to free speech.
As such, free speech, which is so fundamental to our nation, needs to be reevaluated and upheld by all of us, regardless of our political affiliation. In the end, upholding this constitutional right is quite simple: while we may not agree on what to say or what is said, we should all recognize that we all have the equal right to speak.
Iman Siddiqi is a third year political science major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.