The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing.
Britney Forsyth, ’21 Biomedical Engineering, won Second Place for her essay, below, responding to this prompt:
“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” Frederick Douglass
With the recent resurgence in white supremacist demonstrations across the country, do public higher education institutions have a responsibility to accommodate speakers and speech that affects student populations? What exactly constitutes the “suppression of free speech”?
Restrict Speech, Restrict Thought
In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in an attempt to dismantle the deeply-rooted tradition of gender oppression that characterized her time; she used words to demand equality of the sexes and education for women. In 1965, college students refused to leave a sit-in counter until being served, spearheading a movement that sought to end the all too prevalent discrimination African Americans endured in their day to day lives. In 1965, peace activists burned draft cards and held demonstrations to protest U. S. involvement in the Vietnam War on the basis of morality and human decency. In all three cases, people, men, women, students, and activists, exercised their freedom to speak, to assemble, and to petition. To imagine that freedom of speech, a hallmark of radical social and political change, is, today, being associated with racially insensitive and degrading comments toward minority groups is absolutely devastating.
With the rise of alt right groups and white supremacists, suppressing racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or Islamophobic speech seems the most appealing option, especially on a college campus, a place that should encourage diversity and inclusivity. Today, an overwhelming majority of students feel compelled to restrict such speech, and for laudable reason: to create an environment that is inclusive and supportive of all people. Although with their heightened social conscience, students have misplaced their faith in the ability of school administrators to dismantle a history of racism and inequality in the United States.
At the University of California at Berkeley, protesters hurled smoke bombs, broke windows, and started fires outside the speaking venue at which Milo Yiannopoulos would speak. Similarly, faculty at Ohio State University banned white nationalist Richard Spencer from speaking on their campus, and at the University of Florida, anti-racist demonstrators jeered at and disrupted Spencer as he attempted to make a speech. Although students acted in such ways to create a community of love and support for their peers, censoring disagreeable speech does nothing but drive dangerous ideologies into a place that allows them to fester and grow.
Dealing with disgustingly misplaced values requires more than rules and regulations. Real social change comes from hard work and open, honest conversation. For Daryl Davis, a blues musician and an African American man who spends his free time befriending members of the KKK, gulfing the divide between white nationalist and human being requires trust, understanding, and knowledge. A battleground of ideas, not weapons, provides the most useful tool against a world built on hate and misunderstanding.
When schools shut down speakers that espouse bigoted viewpoints, they deprive students of an opportunity to advocate and speak out against ideas that should have no place in society. Using language to spark conversations that target the underlying causes of bigotry and educating people about race, intolerance, and inequality would be more beneficial than silencing hateful ideas.
As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” To eliminate gender inequality, foster peace, and eradicate racism, one must be willing to learn. The university exists to provide students with the most enriching education possible, to equip them with the mind and ability to change a cruel and often unjust world. Providing a platform for all speakers, no matter how offensive or disgusting their ideas, gives students a practice ground for debating and analyzing these ideas. Having one’s ideas challenged, questioning one’s beliefs, and formulating new systems of thought are all intrinsic parts of an enriching education. Simply put, what is the value of an education if not for experiencing, reflecting upon, or debating ideas different from the ones held by the student and using that knowledge to mold the world?
For students to grow intellectually, they must be willing to confront ideals that run counter to their own. Only by bringing offensive and hateful ideas into the light and holding bigots responsible for their ideas will racism and sexism be expunged from society.
Protecting the rights of all people to express their thoughts, opinions, and voice is not protecting racism, homophobia, sexism, or bigotry. Protecting freedom of speech means protecting diversity of thought and allowing the voices of those with a heightened moral compass to combat the ideas that make society a less welcoming place for all people. If schools are not willing to uphold their responsibility to educate their students about the tragedies of the world, little hope exists for erasing the tragic ideals that persist in society.