The slow, painful death of free speech on college campuses

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On Feb. 2, the University of California at Berkeley was supposed to hold a lecture by conservative commentator and Breitbart contributor Milo Yiannopoulos, which was sponsored by the college’s Republican Club. Due to a student protest that quickly escalated to a violent riot, the talk had to be cancelled out of concern for Milo and the student body’s safety.

The protest was in response to Milo and was in part due to both outsiders and students. Protest and civil disobedience is in no way foreign to college campuses in the U.S., and throughout the course of the 20th and 21st century have had a major impact on our country’s ability to progressively move forward both socially and politically. Some significant movements on college campuses historically include demonstrating against African American suppression and United States foreign intervention and regime change.

However, as political spectrums have become more extreme and, in many ways, regressive, the ideas and ways students have protested have changed dramatically. Recent significant demonstrations and protests include Oberlin students declaring that their cafeteria food is culturally appropriated, a problem which must be addressed, and Williams students stating that the “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series on campus is too uncomfortable for students and should be canceled.

One would think that these developments are a result from the mind of a highly satirical writer for the Onion or SNL. No, these are real movements that are comprised of many students who think that putting time and resources toward this is “progressive.” The recent events that took place at Berkeley embody one of the saddest and most unsettling protests in the recent age of students censoring ideas that they don’t like or approve of. This is because, ironically, the entire free speech movement started at Berkeley during the 1960s, in which the majority of the student body called for the administration to lift a ban on political activities on campus and acknowledge the student body’s right to academic freedom and free speech.

Their entire movement was based on the core enlightenment idea that, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” an idea that is responsible for the creation of liberalism in the first place and, as a result, the concept of human rights. That inherently progressive value is not what the student population at Berkeley adheres to today.

For many, Milo’s ideas border on hate speech and are not politically correct. However this is not a sufficient reason for him to be restricted from exercising his freedom of speech in a public setting. There is no such thing as ideas or speech that are not okay to be expressed, since that is a highly subjective and relative for different individuals, and is a slippery slope for the creation of a totalitarian regime.

Ironically, the student body’s rejection of allowing Milo a platform to speak on campus, and to engage with both liberal and conservative students, led to Milo having an even bigger platform; he became a household name overnight and his book became an Amazon best seller. Milo’s overnight success as a result of the violent riots at Berkeley could have all been avoided if him and the students respected his right to freedom of speech and the right of students’ who wanted to hear him talk.

Simply put, if you didn’t want to hear Milo speak or his ideas, then you didn’t have to go. The students on campus who wanted to have a dialogue with Milo, and even debate with him or question his views should be able to do so without worrying about disruption or their safety, since, you know, academic institutions are intended for flourishing critical thinking, not shutting down ideas you don’t like. What it comes down to is that if you think that it would be wrong for a liberal/progressive speaker to be kicked off of a conservative campus for the perceived “backwards” views he or she holds, then you should logically also support the same situation on the opposite spectrum. If you do not, you are a hypocrite. You cannot advocate for values that only benefit your interests. They have to be universal because if they are not then they are not real “progressive” values in the first place.

Essentially you are simply not progressive or liberal if you advocate against freedom of speech in any way or form. One just needs to look at history for evidence. There has never been a free society in existence that suppresses human rights such as freedom of speech, expression, religion, etc. Every authoritarian regime throughout history has used the suppression of freedom of speech as a way to coerce their population and essentially control ideas in their society to benefit their interests.

This is how men went from innocent children to soldiers in the Nazi Army in the late 1930s, or today, being a suicide bomber for ISIS. What the student population must realize is that the negatives of the suppression of freedom of speech far outweigh the negatives of freedom of speech itself, even with ideas you do not like, and they must realize that quickly or we will soon be in a speech and idea controlled fascist state, especially now with Donald Trump as leader of the free world.

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