Free speech isn’t dead. It is increasingly yielding necessary debate. The creation of an entire student organization at Harvard focused solely on free speech is highly unnecessary and promotes the idea that free speech cannot simply be integrated into everyday conversations.
Earlier this semester, a group of students at Harvard University launched the Open Campus Initiative, the school’s first club focused on free speech.
“We decided to seek out some method for advocating for the things that we learned and we realized that there was no group at Harvard interested in open dialogue,” club president Conor Healy told USA Today.
This sentiment sounds nice, but it begs the question — shouldn’t every group at Harvard be interested in open dialogue? I’m sure there are not many campus organizations openly promoting their commitment to closed dialogue.
This development demonstrates just how ridiculous the discussion surrounding free speech has gotten. People are now quick to throw out phrases like “free speech is dead” and claim that their right to free speech is being infringed upon, but the fundamental right to free speech hasn’t changed. The only thing that has changed is wider accusations against individuals violating free speech, when these individuals are simply practicing free speech for themselves.
The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” As far as I know, Congress hasn’t passed any new legislation that reduced the right to free speech, so the right still exists. It is just a matter of exercising it. However, many conservatives claim that their free speech is under attack as soon as liberals push back against what they’re saying.
It is completely understandable that many conservatives feel like they are under attack or that schools are no longer places of open dialogue, especially considering recent incidents of controversial speakers being widely protested by students, such as conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley and National Policy Institute President Richard Spencer at Auburn University. Nevertheless, the First Amendment technically only limits the ability of Congress to legally restrict free speech. It doesn’t mean that no entity can ever exercise discretion when allowing a speaker on their property.
Universities currently find themselves in a tricky balancing act between the desire for open discussion and the need to address students who legitimately feel threatened by certain speakers. This balance has plagued free speech since its inception; as Americans, we have the freedom to say whatever we want, until it crosses the line and infringes on the rights of others.
The Open Campus Initiative is an overreaction and negates the very purpose it hopes to achieve. There’s no need to create a club specifically for free speech; it would be more effective for the same students involved in the club to lead by example by contributing to open discussions in every aspect of their lives on campus, not just within a small group of students who chose to be in the Open Campus Initiative.
Those who claim free speech is dying are often the same people who lambast the rise of campuses as a “safe space,” yet the Open Campus Initiative merely creates a safe space for students to speak openly without fear of someone vehemently arguing with them. If the involved students truly feel like free speech is disappearing on campuses, they should try to open the minds of students who normally would resist their ideas, instead of limiting their “open discussions” to a student group that is made up of a self-selecting group of individuals that is predisposed to be accepting of open and frank discussions. In this way, the club essentially defeats its very purpose by sectioning off into a club for free speech, instead of maintaining the expectation that free speech be a part of everyday life, and by creating yet another group of inherently like-minded individuals.
Recent support for campus safe spaces have undoubtedly created an environment that is less than friendly to students with unpopular beliefs. However, the proper way to address this is by organically fostering open conversation at any possible time, not by specifically designating one organization as the space for these conversations.
Erin Rode is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism and political science. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.