Who’s Really Hindering Free Speech?

Days ago, pending Milo Yiannopoulos’s speech at the University of California, Berkeley, an event arose more controversial than any so far in the free speech debate. In lieu of standard protesters, there were rioters. They lit fires, launched projectiles and shattered windows. Per their wishes, Yiannopoulos’s speech was cancelled. Berkeley is the very institution that only half a century ago viciously fought for the right to free speech on college campuses. It is cruelly ironic that an event at this institution has, at least ostensibly, illuminated the demise of that same right.

Though I have always been skeptical of the far-left, the word “fascist,” a term frequently promulgated by the right, seemed like a cop-out for people who only want to sling around provocative diction without any real meaning attributed to it. We have finally reached a point where it is sufficiently acceptable to use such a word. Protests are the tool of those seeking change through the spread of ideas, who confront their opposition head-on, and defend their ideas. Riots are the tool of fascists who want dissenters to be silenced; if they intend to gain any semblance of credibility, they ought to fight ideas with ideas, not with tyrannical suppression.

From the opposite perspective, Republicans just elected a president who spent the first two weeks of his term enacting executive orders so nationalist that they would have seemed inconceivable just two years ago. It has become clear that those of us who occupy neither the far-left nor the far-right are now engaged in a two-front war to defend the rights enshrined within the very fabric of this country’s existence.

I’ll leave the exploration of the far-left’s threat to free speech to the right, who will undoubtedly address this issue ad nauseam. Unfortunately, the very same far-right poses many of the same threats, perhaps not as brashly, but nonetheless sinisterly.

The Wisconsin legislature, for instance, threatened to cut funding to University of Wisconsin-Madison for offering a voluntary program entitled “Men’s Project,” which “aims to explore masculinity and the problems accompanied by simplified definitions of it.” The legislature’s rationale? It “declares war on men,” as per Wisconsin State Senator Steve Nass. Surely Wisconsin has the right to pull funding, as do (private) far-left colleges which have made a habit of pulling speakers, but if this program truly amounts to a “war on men,” such a conclusion must be realized through vigorous debate. It should never be unilaterally decided by legislature and forced in a top-down fashion upon nonconsenting universities designed to be the very places where these debates occur.

Groups such as Turning Point USA, which runs the McCarthian “Professor Watchlist,” now have a presence at our own university.  Professor George Yancy of Emory’s philosophy department gained notoriety for his claim that “racist poison is inside of [Americans].” Agree or not, this quote was drawn from an op-ed asking for and demonstrating humility: in his own words, “I am often ambushed by my own hidden sexism.”

Certainly, Professor Yancy is an unabashed liberal, but the bulk of the evidence that he is dangerous and closed-minded towards conservative students comes from an out-of-context quote in an article in which he takes great pains to point out his own biases.

The philosophy of suppression exists among the political right at all levels of engagement, as demonstrated by the ideas that Dennis Prager, notable conservative thinker, has propagated. Regarding high school reform measures, he suggested that clubs related to ethnicity, race or sexual orientation ought not be permitted; that classes devoted to racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, tobacco, global warming or gender identity ought not be taught; and that students should be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Not only do such proposals fly directly in the face of well-established constitutional law, but they are contrary to free speech itself — only through conversation can the best ideas spread, because the only way to ensure that the best ideas win is by encouraging all ideas to be heard.

Notably, Prager proposed that the topics to be excluded from high schools are those which reflect the Republican Party’s increasingly archaic beliefs. The solution to such issues is not to avoid them, but to embrace and combat them head on; if Prager is right, then his ideas should, in the end, win out.

These very same people on the right are often those who complain about the pervasiveness of political correctness and the harm it renders to open dialogue. But stretched to its philosophical extreme, these complaints waged against the left are, in the end, self-mutilating. Per Public Policy Polling, more conservatives are offended by the “P.C.” phrase “Happy Holidays” than liberals are by its counterpart, “Merry Christmas.” A similar parallel arose last year, when many conservatives decried the 2015 Starbucks Christmas Coffee Cups as an assault on Christmas by the politically correct left. In 2016, with the return of reindeer to their cups, unsurprisingly, there was a lack of corresponding outrage by those advocating for political correctness.

Emory University students are no exception to this trend. Last year, during the Trump chalkings incident, no group advocated more incessantly (and correctly) than the Emory College Republicans that the importance of diverging opinions trumps that of sensitivity. Yet, only two months ago, the same group moved for the resignation of Dean Ajay Nair on the grounds that he was insensitive to those affected by 9/11 after comparing the moods of Emory campus post-Trump election and the University of Virginia campus post-9/11.

Waging a war of ideas on an asymmetric battlefield is tempting. But in any war of ideas, only through extensive dialogue can any idea can be rigorously tested for flaws, inconsistencies, encroachments on rights and for judgements on those ideas to be finalized. But on both sides of the issue, many resorted to playing ostrich or attacking others’ First Amendment rights. If we intend to move forward as a country and a people, we must recognize the valid philosophical foundations of those with whom we disagree.

Grant Osborn is a College sophomore from Springfield, Ohio.