Concerning the right to free speech

Carly Matthew

In April of 2017, the City University of New York invited Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas School of Law, to speak on the importance of freedom of speech. He was heckled off the stage by students calling him a fascist and a white supremacist. In October of 2017, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the executive director of the ACLU was interrupted while talking about the freedom of speech by protesters of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protesters disagreed with her opinion that the white nationalists in Charlottesville had the right to protest. She was unable to finish her speech because of the protesters. There have been countless other examples of speakers on college campuses being prevented from speaking because of student protests. With the rise of concern to be politically correct and not offend anyone inevitably comes a censorship of opinions. 

To be clear, I believe that having safe spaces where people are protected from speech that can be damaging to them is perfectly fine and needed. Safe spaces exist so that if you don’t want to hear something, you don’t have to. But the fact that these college students were preventing a speech that they did not have to attend is wrong. If they didn’t want to hear what the speaker had to say, they could not have gone, or hosted their own event in a response to it. Everyone has a right to have an opinion and share it, and heckling and harrassing someone to the point that they can no longer do so is against the ideals of our nation. It is perfectly fine to disagree with someone, but you should engage them in meaningful conversation to make your position clear, not simply yell at them until they are forced to be quiet.

Imposing the “safe space” mentality onto the entire world is not helpful. They exist so that you can take a break from the turmoil of ideas if you want to, they shouldn’t prevent the ideas from being said. You can choose to disengage, but if you force others to do so as well you are hindering democracy, debate, and discussion. Being offended is good; not agreeing with everyone around you is healthy and fosters growth. 

The First Amendment of our country allows for people to take offense and to become engaged in the society around them. If you block out everything that makes you uncomfortable, you are preventing progress and action against the uncomfortable topic. Claire Guthrie Gastañaga wasn’t agreeing with white supremacists, she was simply saying they had the right to protest. If she hadn’t been silenced, there could have been an active discussion on when freedom of speech turns into hate speech, and when protests become riots. Instead, students heard that she sided with one aspect of the Charlottesville white supremacists and decided she didn’t have the right to speak. 

Offensive speech makes people grow in their opinions and beliefs. Blocking ideas that you don’t agree with helps no one. The need for our society to be politically correct and non-offensive to everyone often toes the line between censorship, and this inhibits progress, action, and advocacy in our nation.