POINT: Conservatives exaggerate attacks on free speech rights


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.

  • BoredHousewife

    The new club at Harvard is regularly inviting speakers to campus. They are not, as this author suggests, huddling together in an echo chamber.

  • Arafat

    Yeah…sure…and today we learn Cal Berkeley has cancelled Ann Coulter’s appearance because of security concerns.

    Yeah…sure, Erin whatever you say. LOL

  • Scott Jacobs

    Who taught you civics?

    Because they failed you miserably.

  • Don Harmon

    1) No intelligent Trojan believes that racial, religious, demeaning body-shaming, gender, etc. or other hate speech should be protected. And our campus is likewise no place for insults, ridiculing, cruel speech, disparaging speech or the like. Obviously, fighting words or incitements to violence or commit foul, rude behavior likewise does not belong at USC.

    2) With that out of the way, please give some examples of controversial speech which should be permitted in student debate, even in safe spaces. Please give other examples of speech not listed in paragraph 1) above, which should be prohibited in safe spaces.

    3) I am not being sarcastic or pretending to be dense. I am genuinely trying to understand exactly what is intended in addressing speech on campus to be prohibited, beyond the obvious unacceptable speech stated in paragraph 1.

    • Rob Vance

      Calls to violence do exist and warrant prevention. Criticism, opinions you don’t agree with and promotion of values which are not your own do generally deserve protection. You’ve tried a variation on the ‘No true Scotsman” fallacy. I wish colleges still taught that kind of analysis (logical fallacies). And dump the safe spaces, snowflake.

      • Don Harmon

        Good reply, Rob. In fact, I am on your side. I am not at all in favor of “safe spaces,” in fact, the idea disgusts me. I am neither liberal nor snowflake, but I mentioned “safe spaces” only in the sense of conceding that this atrocious concept has evidently become sacred and beloved by many schools. I was wondering this: What can students talk about in safe spaces? Or in any other spaces on a campus without running into some overly protective, silly rule?

        I failed to communicate; my bad. I was trying to determine what controversial discussion was acceptable at all to those who want “safe spaces,” want restricted language and want restricted subject matter. I ruled out the obvious, but was hoping to learn what other areas are forbidden as “unsafe.”

  • AdamSteinbaugh

    “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.”

    This isn’t accurate. The First Amendment has been applied against the states (and state subdivisions) since the early 1900s by way of the Fourteenth Amendment. Translated out of boring-law-words, this means that the First Amendment applies to state institutions — including college campuses. (See, for example, the Supreme Court case Healy v. James, involving a leftist student club that was denied recognition by a public university because of fears that they would advocate for unlawful conduct or engage in violence.)

  • counterofbeans

    Then why is conservative speech shut down at so many schools? Why is conservative speech labeled as hate speech? Why are conservatives labeled as fascists when it is the left that is using fascist tactics to shut down free speech? It wasn’t conservatives which rioted at Berkeley about 6 weeks ago and destroyed property and wouldn’t allow Milo to speak. Until Berkeley I had never even heard of Milo. Why was Ben Shapiro not allowed to speak at CSULA? Why is Ann Coulter given a hard time when she tries to speak? The problem is the alt-left is afraid to let conservatives voices speak. Isn’t the purpose of a university/college to have an exchange of ideas? How can you have an exchange of ideas when only the alt-left is allowed to present their ideas? Show me an incident of violet protest by conservative students against an alt-left speaker. I can show you plenty of alt-left violence against conservative speakers. Q.E.D.