A Student Voice: The Importance of Free Speech on Campus

Lawrence Debate Union member and UVM student Dan DeDomenico has shared his opinion on our next Public Debate topic of free speech restriction on college campuses below, what are your thoughts?

“The rights of students and faculty to free speech and assembly on their college campuses should not be infringed upon unless speech poses a threat to the physical wellbeing of the student body, the campus, or any individual or group of individuals. With few exceptions, this is common practice and I suspect is not the heart of the controversy over free speech on college campuses. The class of events which has recently become so prevalent in public discourse is the invitation of controversial speakers to events which they arrange in conjunction with their supporters on campus. One thing can be said for certain – any speaker who poses a threat to the safety and security of students or faculty on campus, implicitly or explicitly, should not be invited to speak. This includes speakers like Milo Yiannopoulous, who encourages his supporters to inform immigration authorities of the whereabouts and identities of undocumented persons, or Richard Spencer, who advocates for the “peaceful” removal of nonwhite citizens from the United States. It is far too easy for suggestion of action to become incitement to action, and campuses must prioritize the safety and wellbeing of their student population over some abstract commitment to the ideals of free speech and civil discourse which, it turns out, is not as staunch of a commitment as it intuitively appears to be. With the exception of the recent disinvitation of Chelsea Manning to Harvard Law School as a visiting fellow under threat of the resignation of former CIA director Michael J. Morell’s own fellowship, and the withdrawal of acting director Mike Pompeo from a Harvard forum, very few campus incidents involving public intellectuals actually stray into territory where the right to free speech unhindered by the state as protected under the first amendment might be impinged upon. Students who organize in opposition to guest speakers on campus are in fact exercising their own rights to free assembly and in several states, this sort of assembly is being met with increasing formal opposition, including statutes which would criminalize protest to some degree under state law, or make it a disciplinary offense within public universities themselves. Several states have introduced, and some have passed this sort of legislation. Meanwhile, speakers who expect a warm welcome on campus are not requesting the right to free speech unhindered by government or institutional forces, but the right to a platform where they can lecture students on their views without substantial criticism from the student body or from other worthy public intellectuals. This is incompatible with the mission of the university as an institution which promotes higher learning and civil discourse for a few reasons. First among them is that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing – hearing the rhetoric of a single speaker outside of the context of the views of their detractors and colleagues can easily leave students less informed than they were when they walked in the room, especially due to the fact that campus provocateurs like Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter rely primarily on low-tier high school debate team maxims as the foundation for their rhetoric. Neither of these speakers could hold their own against a worthy detractor from the university faculty or the general public the way that they can against riled up undergrads from the other side of a police barricade. Attending a Ben Shapiro event on campus is not an act of meaningful investigation into pressing political issues of the time. Ben Shapiro is not an expert. He is not an academic. He does not conduct research. He is a rather quick-thinking columnist who knows how to push one set of buttons on his sympathizers and another on his adversaries. Universities do not have an obligation to their students or their principles provide a platform to speakers who seek to incite a reaction from the student body without meaningfully engaging in a dialectic with their detractors. Doing so, especially against the wishes of the student body, does not fulfill a commitment to the principles of free speech and civil discourse. In fact, it contradicts those principles by repressing student and faculty assembly in order to privilege the monologue of an agitator over any opportunity for constructive debate.”