Why Free Speech Really Matters

A 2017 study by the Brookings Institute found that about 20% of all college students believe that it’s ok to respond with violence towards those they identify as sharing offensive or hateful speech. 51% believe that it’s ok to shout individuals down and not let them speak if they believe that what they are saying is offensive or hurtful. Further, the organization “FIRE” (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) finds that while 32% of all college campuses restrict speech, while only 7.6% do an exemplary job of protecting free speech. The evidence seems to suggest that most students who attend college welcome some restrictions on free speech, and a significant number of schools around the nation agree with them. It is my opinion that this a terrible mistake. The purpose of this essay is to share reasons why free speech is important and needs to be protected on college campuses (and beyond). This essay will attempt to convey the arguments that move beyond first amendment guarantees, and how they have been interpreted over time. The perspective I will be sharing takes human development into account… suggesting that free speech limitations may make sense at certain stages of a child’s development, but do not make sense for those about to enter the so called, “real world.” Free speech also makes sense as we move beyond “post modernism,” and commence to embrace “integration,” which starts with the notion that “everybody has a partial piece of the truth.” It is my hope to explain why we need to listen to human beings who want to share ideas that are very different than one’s own (as I will argue that it facilitates growth in “perspective taking”). Thus, if higher educational institutions are to prepare their students to cope, survive and prosper in this increasingly “complex” world, then helping them to develop skills in “diverse perspective taking” is essential.

When I speak of free speech, I am speaking of people with different points of view sharing their thoughts and ideas in a manner that allows for a civil conversation. I am not speaking of harassment or threats that are deemed criminal in their intent. I am not speaking of speech that intentionally leads to violence. We have fairly clear guidelines under the law around those forms of speech… Those “forms of speech” are “forms” I am very much in favor of limiting. I also want to be clear that I understand the necessity to limit free speech when it comes to children. Our preschools, elementary schools, and parts of high school should have the ability to limit hateful and offensive speech. For example, we often “limit speech” in our home when it comes to what our 6-year-old daughter gets to listen to, learn about, and say. Understanding human development is key in terms of comprehending what individuals need to stay insulated from as they develop a healthy sense of self, before entering society as full time contributing members. “Limiting speech” also applies toward protecting those who have experienced some form of trauma, that may continue to impact their lives in debilitating ways. Beyond that, I believe that college is where those restrictions should end, with very few exceptions. In a college setting, people should have the opportunity to share what is deemed as deeply offensive, hateful and hurtful language with another, without being limited. 

Arguments in favor of free speech generally revolve around a few key points, with one being the “market place of ideas.” The suggestion here, from John Stuart Mill and other enlightenment-based thinkers expressed the notion, that in a free “market place,” the best ideas will come forward through an authentic dialogical process. Another argument states that only through free speech and listening to offensive speech can one hone the skills necessary to refute them. Thus, speech is a tactical weapon that can be used to defeat the hateful arguments that one may disagree with. Some progressives argue from a “slippery slope perspective” that free speech restrictions were used to limit the civil rights movement, and if done again could come back to marginalize a minority even though that wasn’t the original intention. I appreciate these arguments in favor of free speech but believe that a more compelling reason why listening to others is important is because “everybody is right.” I don’t mean that everybody is equally right, but that “everybody” has at least a partial piece of the truth. That statement really includes “everybody,” meaning nobody is ever excluded.

Why is it important to be inclusive in the way that I am describing?...  Because we have come to recognize that no single discipline, religion, and or philosophy embodies the whole truth. Each reflects a partial truth, and when considered comprehensively, we can paint a fuller and richer picture of the life we all live, and the ways to conceptualize and handle the problems we face. After all, that is why our general education system revolves around the Platonic notion of the “Good, The True, and the Beautiful.” We as a society recognize that students must be exposed to all three areas through the arts, history, sciences, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and more to have a well-rounded education. We have seen throughout history during different epochs that have argued that their single perspective is the only truth (some academic departments and majors still hold on to that idea that their discipline is the most important). We saw with mythic religion, science and the enlightenment to cultural relativism of more recent postmodern expressions. All defining truth through their lens. It is very important to recognize their partial pieces of the story and not leave any of them out, as I believe they all have something important to teach us. I’m not arguing that each unique perspective be given the exact same weight as some perspectives have greater depth than others (as evolution and the deepening of complexity and perspectives continue to teach us) and that must be recognized in our world as well.

For example, Charles Murray’s conservative ideas, that were assaulted and shouted down at Middlebury College, must be heard… while struggling to find a partial piece of the truth in “the story.” It means, for example, not restricting those that want to speak out about whether or not the country of Israel has a right to exist (as in some settings that is considered off the table to even talk about, as laws have been considered with bipartisan support in this area). In essence, there are important points to be heard on both sides of every conservative and liberal argument. There are points to be heard from the religious fundamentalists, as well as and atheistic fundamentalists. There are points to be heard from both Eastern and Western philosophical perspectives... They must be all be included, as they each teach us something that can lead us toward taking additional perspectives into account, as we navigate the best decisions for ourselves, our country, and our world. My argument is that we must attempt to be as comprehensive as humanly possible in considering what right action should be. To do that requires us to be as inclusive as possible, in terms of allowing the myriad of ideas, thoughts and perspectives to be put on the table to be part of the discussion. 

The evidence has become clear that we are one human race that share almost the exact same characteristics. There is further evidence both from physical and wisdom traditions of the interconnection of all beings. We are at a point in our history where events that happen around the world have at least an indirect impact on all of our lives. Dr. King spoke of interconnection in terms of just acts in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” If we recognize that we are one human race and our deep interconnection, then we must recognize that all beings deserve to be listened to in relationship to their ideas and visions of reality (even when their language is considered deeply offensive to us).

Further, the University is where we share with our students the myriad of perspectives necessary to help them to contemplate the world of the past, today and tomorrow. It’s important at this point in a student’s development that they get ready to enter a society that has few or no insular protections (like safe zones), so that they are able to listen and contemplate ideas that they consider offensive (without using physical force or shouting until folks stop talking). 

One of the major obstacles colleges and universities are facing is how to help develop resilience and grit in their students, a skillset that employers across the board wish for their employees.  I would argue that shielding students from positions they are uncomfortable with is undermining those very efforts, while setting them up to not be able to deal with critical feedback in the workforce (that we all ultimately face at some point in our career and should face). In addition, one of the critical lessons articulated through various wisdom traditions I have studied over time carries with it the notion of “not taking things personally” … that every act that a person does is not about you! Socrates made that clear when he was sentenced to death. Dr. King asserted the same truth through how he responded to the many slights and judgments he received over time.   Thus, we have the opportunity to hear hurtful words without “taking them personally,” as some of greatest teachers from diverse cultures have shared over time.  

There are many facets to the universe we live in, and beyond. Many different approaches and philosophies exist that give us a glimpse into the magnificence and complexity of all that we are a living part of.  I am of the mind that we must create space for all of those different perspectives no matter how limited we consider them to be. Each perspective can help us to know more about who we are and where we might be going.  We can’t do that if we shut out certain voices and perspectives because one might disagree in some deeply offensive way… The world’s complex problems require of us to demand a level of complexity in perspective taking which doesn’t allow us to ignore anything. Climate change, for example, can’t be solved if one just looks at it from a scientific perspective.  Cultural clashes can’t be solved without also including a developmental perspective. Nothing is simple, and everybody has a piece of the story.  

To be as inclusive, as I have described, requires recognizing the equal dignity and intrinsic worth present in all beings… even including those “beings” that fail to recognize the “equal dignity and worth” present in anyone other than themselves… Thus, if we are to truly honor diversity and interconnection, a good place to start would be by seeing the limited, partial and incomplete truth that lies in each of us, and then to grow more open to experiencing and listening to others.