There’s this view of free speech that seems to suggest that we have an obligation to sit down and quietly listen to racists, warmongers and extremists.
That seems to be the undertone of criticisms of the student demonstrators protesting a speech at Beloit College in the U.S.
“In a raucous performance-inspired protest, students at Beloit College on Wednesday shut down a planned speech by Erik Prince, an associate of President Trump and the controversial founder of the security company Blackwater.”
It also seems to be the intent of the free speech policy being required of Ontario colleges and universities this year. Said our premier: “I’ve heard from many students who believe our campuses need to be a place for respectful and open dialogue, without fear of attacks or discrimination.”
Let’s be clear, nobody here is promoting physical attacks. But is someone is going to show up where I work or study and promote some of the hatred some speakers promote, then I’m not going to sit quietly and applaud. Neither should the students.
Yes, there should be room for debate at colleges and universities. That’s the reason for their existence. Yes, we should be able to discuss uncomfortable topics at colleges and universities. That’s the only way some of my own ideas (radical left-wing ideas like socialized health care and guaranteed income) can ever see the light of day.
But let’s also be clear that this is not what the promoters of talks by people like Blackwater founder Erik Prince or race-based theorist Charles Murray are trying to do. They’re not there to debate their ideas. They’re there to intimidate the people who oppose them. They’re there, quite literally, to take the bully pulpit.
As a recent open letter says in part, “This is not an issue of freedom of speech. We think it is necessary to allow a diverse range of perspectives to be voiced at Middlebury …. However, in this case we find the principle does not apply, due to not only the nature, but also the quality, of Dr. Murray’s scholarship. He paints arguments for the biological and intellectual superiority of white men with a thin veneer of quantitative rhetoric and academic authority.”
What ‘freedom of speech’ is being used for in the case of people like Prince or Murray is to block criticism of of these people. They can speak, but if you raise your voice in criticism, you are the one blocking free speech. Because the first principle of free speech under this sort of regime is that ‘you do not speak back to power’. Especially if they are questioning your right to exist.
No, that’s not how free speech works. If someone is going to say something offensive, then they should be shouted down. That’s how freedom of speech works. If someone says something hateful or threatening, then they should be removed from the stage. That’s how freedom of speech works.
Because freedom of speech works not by protecting the oppressors. It works by protecting the people who would stand up against them.