Stop Calling it a Free Speech Debate: Platforms and College Campuses

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In the past couple of years, a narrative has emerged, mostly unchallenged, that left-leaning college students are shutting down dissenting opinions and stifling free speech on college campuses. The people who push this narrative cite protests over the invitation of certain speakers as proof that leftists cannot tolerate dissent, and that universities need to ensure that discussion and dialogue is possible. When Middlebury University punished 67 students for protesting Charles Murray’s invitation to speak at Middlebury, conservative outlets published headlines such as “Middlebury Announces Non-Punishment for Charles Murray protesters” and “Middlebury Didn’t Really Punish Students Over Charles Murray Riot,” clamouring for harsher punishments for protesters. This ignores that the reason sanctions were light is because the people identified could only be punished for “disorderly protest” which the handbook identifies as everything from having signs to using bullhorns to drown out speakers. In clamouring for harsher punishment, these self-appointed defenders of free speech are suppressing the ability of students to criticize and express themselves. This isn’t a debate about free speech–it’s about the right of speakers to be heard.

Much of the controversy involves the disinvitation of speakers by universities. This is fundamentally a question of whether or not a university wants to give a platform to certain individuals, not a question of whether they are being silenced. Richard Spencer can hold his views and speak about them all he wants, but it does not mean Casady School, for example, has to give him Fee Theatre for a rally. Framing this as a free speech issue is fundamentally disingenuous. It is rather an issue of exposure, whether or not a university chooses to highlight or promote a speaker’s ideas. The idea of signal-boosting neo-nazis might be despicable to a student body, and they would therefore seek a disinvitation. Furthermore, if a speaker tends to attract violent crowds, then a university might decide hosting them is a safety hazard and disinvite them, which is exactly what Auburn did, only to run into a court order that forced them to platform Spencer, under the grounds they were violating his free speech. To be clear, a ban on a speaker speaking on campus would be a free speech issue; to not invite them to speak is not.

These disinvitations are often precipitated by protests by students, which often draw criticism for being “soft-skinned” and “sheltered,” while simultaneously being dangerous authoritarians who want to ban all opposing opinions. Notably, the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’s speech at Berkeley was brought on first by peaceful protests and then vandalism by black-clad Anarchists. This, contrary to the narrative at the time, was not because of his views, but because they thought he was going to expose undocumented immigrants at the university during his speech, and because he had a history of singling out students for abuse. This was interpreted as an attack on the student body, who then acted to de-platform him. Of course, the proper response would just be to arrest vandals if necessary, which is an issue already covered under existing law, however lawmakers seem to think otherwise.

Obscured by the debate over whether students are stifling speech is the concerted effort by lawmakers to do so under the guise of protecting it. Bills passed in both Wisconsin and North Carolina both ban universities from disinviting speakers, and mandate that they institute punishment for any student that dares protest against said speakers. The Wisconsin bill also institutes mandatory minimums for punishment, and similar bills are being introduced across the country, along with bills restricting protest in general, most of which have been killed by the ACLU. Both bills were structured based on a model bill by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank. In other words, to “protect free speech” lawmakers have legislated against the free speech of students, so that conservative speakers can be guaranteed a platform. It seems they are only interested in a diversity of opinions when that diversity of opinions are the opinions they approve of.

The continued framing of platforming as a free speech issue ultimately poisons the debate over it and obfuscates the real arguments and issues at hand. If we continue to frame protest as denying free speech, then, as Thomas Healy argues in the Atlantic, that risks opening the door to a much greater threat: that of government oppression. I know I would much rather have protests and unrest over controversial speakers coming to campus, then to have the right to protest abridged for the comfort of speakers.