Free speech shouldn’t be synonymous with violence

Free+speech+shouldn%E2%80%99t+be+synonymous+with+violence

Riley Garland

On Dec. 7, Professor Thomas Cushman of Wellesley College visited NMU to talk about the First Amendment. The event was part of the Freedom Project, an initiative developed at Wellesley dedicated to the exploration of the ideas of liberty. Cushman’s event was organized by the NMU English Department and endorsed by the College Democrats, College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty.

A speaker who would come and discuss this topic was long overdue. Free speech has always been a fundamental value in America, and is enshrined in the Constitution.

Yet, more people in our generation seem to hold deeply rooted misunderstandings about this freedom, or are abandoning it entirely. Shocking studies conducted by various groups show a grow- ing, widespread hostility toward this value.

In a study conducted by John Villasenor, a Brookings Institution fellow and UCLA professor, 51 percent of undergraduate students found it acceptable to shut down speakers they deem controversial. Four in 10 students don’t believe the First Amendment covers hate speech. And, most shockingly, 1 in 5 students believe it is OK to use physical violence to shut down a speaker they believe is making “offensive and hurtful statements.”

The data marks a broad failure in not just our education system, but in American culture to teach the importance and value of free speech.

It is destructive to our universities that a majority of college students subscribe to the idea of shutting down speakers they disagree with. College is supposed to be a place of learning, a place where people are introduced to those who think different and a place where any idea can be heard and debated.

However, American universities have developed a poor track record as of late, consistently making headlines when they prevent speakers from coming.

Perhaps the most shocking of the statistics is that 1 in 5 students believe that violence is an acceptable measure against someone they believe is being offensive. Where does this fundamentally anti-American attitude come from?
Think back to Charlottesville this last summer, when the Unite the Right rally, led by neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, was being held. Spencer was assaulted while trying to make a statement to the press, and celebrities and journalists took to social media to defend the person who assaulted him. The conclusion became, “It’s OK to punch a Nazi.”
This attitude is the core issue. At some point, people began conflating words with action, and decided that speech can be a form of violence. When framed this way, it seems perfectly legitimate to use violence against violence.
This is patently false. Speech is not violence. In a civilized society, it is never permissible to use violence against a speaker, regardless of what that speaker is saying.

When this idea begins to crumble, as it already has among college students, we see suppressed ideas, anger and reactionary politics.

President Trump is a product of this reaction. He won because he wasn’t afraid to throw a punch at those who told him to pipe down, and when large swaths of the country feel like they aren’t being listened to, this is the kind of person they want.

If we in America want to see open debate, intellectual honesty and academic integrity restored on college campuses, it begins with reaffirming the value of the First Amendment.

The importance of free speech is second to none. We must condemn those who would limit speech, reject safe space culture and reinvigorate the spirit of discovery and debate that is missing in our schools. Integrity will not be regained until we acknowledge that intellectual diversity is something to be celebrated, not suppressed.