Your “free speech” is denying mine


Photo credit: Andrea Nebhut

Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

“I don’t like what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” A powerful phrase which, although might be a bit cliché at this point, has significant implications for the way in which we view free speech in our country. Not only does the law protect you from being persecuted for your views, but we will actively work to provide you with a platform to say them so that we may criticize and analyze them to find the truth. In a romantic sense, this sounds perfect: no matter what the opinion, we will gladly amplify it in the “free marketplace of ideas” because surely the best ideas will always come out on top.

Unfortunately, this idealistic view of the freedom of speech doesn’t quite add up. Taking the supposedly neutral stance that all speech should be completely unrestricted in the name of freedom is a position itself because some types of speech unavoidably restrict other types. If we were to let a white nationalist take the stage in Laurie Auditorium — which, arguably, we have — the crux of their argument would center on the supposed superiority of their race over others and therefore support the silencing of black and brown voices who want their rights to be recognized. So in a choice between having a civil rights advocate or a white nationalist speak to us, whose voice are we going to choose?

Now, maybe that seems like an extreme example, so let’s think about something closer to our home and our current time. In the spring of 2017, Tigers for Liberty (TFL) brought political commentator Dinesh D’Souza to campus to speak about the current political landscape in the age of Trump. Among many things, D’Souza spoke about the fascism of the Democratic party, who supported policies of segregation and racism a century ago and who maintain crumbling cities and welfare systems today that supposedly keep minorities in a state of poverty.

Putting aside the gross abuse of historical facts — which you can read about being debunked in a thread by historian Kevin Kruse — he then moved on to talk about how undocumented immigrants to the United States do not have rights because they are not citizens and therefore the U.S. Constitution does not apply to them. How ironic that D’Souza moved directly from calling his opponents fascists to arguing that the rights of undocumented immigrants are irrelevant. The natural conclusion of this argument, of course, is to say that we can abuse undocumented immigrants however we like for the sake of national security, because they do not fall under the protections guaranteed by our constitution.

In this supposedly free marketplace of ideas, where on earth are the voices of undocumented immigrants who would prefer their children were not separated from them and placed in cages? There was no undocumented immigrant in the crowd who could stand up during the Q&A section and refute his arguments, and why would there be? Why would someone whose very existence is being trivialized by a speaker go into that crowd of D’Souza supporters and run the risk of being harassed or reported to ICE? When one person’s free speech is actively suppressing the free speech of another, the free marketplace of ideas no longer applies. At that point, we are merely providing a quick and easy way for racists and xenophobes to spout their abusive beliefs with no meaningful counter-argument.

At the beginning of the event, which TFL had touted as an example of free speech prevailing over those oppressive liberals, TFL co-founder Jonah Wendt introduced the speaker with a rule about audience behavior: “If there is a minor disturbance, there will not be any action. If you do it again, we’ll throw you out.” How interesting that in this free-speech-loving, no-safe-zone political event, Dinesh D’Souza couldn’t handle any crazy liberals speaking out against him. It seems as though the most extreme members of the right only like free speech when it suits them. So how neutral of a stance really is it?

Yes, our constitution allows you to say whatever you please (within limits) without fear from being punished for it by the government. But that does not mean we should actively promote oppressive speech that advocates for the removal of rights for certain groups of people. Just like how YouTube has a right to ban Alex Jones from their privately-owned platform for promoting harmful narratives and theories, we Trinity students should be able to deny racists and xenophobes from using our university as a megaphone for their harmful ideologies. Maybe we should question why SGA just approved $5,000 of Student Activity Fee money for another speaker from the Young Conservatives of Texas (previously TFL) while denying the same amount to the Trinitonian to provide free advertising to student organizations. While supposedly defending free speech, we should make sure we aren’t accidentally neglecting the common interests of our peers. Because if we don’t, those previously-dismissed crackpot conservative theories might begin to become mainstream thought.