Balancing the freedoms of speech and protest

In the fight for human rights, protest is unavoidable. Normally, protest is a way to call for the change we seek, but protests can do more harm than good if they begin to infringe upon other personal freedoms. When this happens, there are no right sides; the political beliefs one holds don’t matter if they are actively violating another’s personal freedoms. These blurred lines of activism then subtract from the same goals that might be accomplished through more wholly constructive action, such as writing letters to elected officials or signing petitions.

On March 2, protesters on the campus of the University of North Texas (UNT) took action against a guest speaker for the school’s Young Conservatives of Texas club. This speaker was Jeff Younger, a Republican candidate for Texas House District 63, and an outspoken opponent of gender-affirming healthcare for transgender individuals. He’s most widely known for preventing the transition of his own child, who identifies as a transgender girl. The reaction to Younger’s presence on UNT’s campus was especially heightened by the news of Governor Greg Abbott’s recent executive order condemning child transitions and ordering an investigation into parents of trans children. The student-led protests that occurred at UNT showed support for the trans youth affected by Abbott’s executive order and denounced the bigoted stance taken by many other Texas conservatives in or running for office.

While this stance is undoubtedly one to take action against, due to its vilification of the LGBTQ community and their struggle for access to necessary healthcare, protest is most effective when executed in a nonviolent manner, which it was not at UNT. The demonstration quickly spiraled out of control, despite the protestors’ intentions to stop harmful discourse from being spread. Students yelled and banged on desks to prevent Younger from speaking, undermining the overall effectiveness of their activism. There’s no denying that Younger’s views are extreme and downright hateful, but surely, forcing him to retreat off-campus with a police escort isn’t the right way to establish that. Had his talk gone as planned, it would be much easier for Younger’s critics to condemn him without having to worry about the students who arguably violated his personal freedom of speech.

We all have the freedom of speech, and though we may use it in different ways, it’s still imperative to maintain it. This is a challenge on college campuses, especially in Texas, where a slew of issues are becoming more and more sensitive topics to discuss in a respectable manner. Instead of being able to share opinions about such issues, there has recently been more effort to avoid uncomfortable situations by banning discussion altogether. Even with these issues becoming more and more relevant, the state government and school boards feel the need to repress expanding narratives in order to maintain their own.

Colleges as a whole are disadvantaged by this; campuses are supposed to be places that foster growth through learning about different perspectives, even if those perspectives can be disagreeable. Of course, this is no excuse to foster bigotry and hate speech – people should still be held accountable for their words and actions spurred by hatred. Free speech is separate from hate speech, and that needs to be understood if we are to expand our ability to communicate.

Unfortunately, the current political climate in the U.S., and especially in Texas, has tensions running high between those of opposing beliefs. With each of the two major parties thinking that the other is radically disagreeable, a discussion is no longer a capable tool for people to find a compromise. I certainly am not the one with a solution, but in my mind, there is at least room for improvement.

We can start by listening. This does not include waiting to expose holes in another’s argument or correct them but instead entails truly listening to other perspectives and learning why people have them in the first place. Engaging in respectful conversation should not involve a battle for dominance. In the past, I know I’ve been drawn into debates with people just seeking attention for attention’s sake. When disagreements get blown out of proportion, the issue at heart becomes buried beneath emotion, and no one leaves with a better understanding of their opponent’s view. Again, hate speech is not free speech, and it should not be treated as such. There is a clear difference between disagreeing with someone and hating who they are.

Connecting and incorporating the freedoms of speech and protest is vital to inciting the change we want to see in the future. My ideal activist is someone who knows their own beliefs but also knows those of whatever opposition they face, no matter how outlandish.

To find common ground in the future, we need to start cultivating our culture of exchanging information once again. This will not be easy, as there will continue to be disagreement regardless of the environment where discussion occurs. With any luck, we can realize that beliefs don’t need to be forced down each other’s throats for them to be addressed. Understanding one another (outside of the realms of bigotry) will be the key, not only to forming new connections but also to making a future where our beliefs can coincide.

As of March 12, Abbott’s order to prevent access to gender-affirming healthcare has been temporarily blocked by a Texas judge, after much public outcry about how this would affect transgender youths and their families. This is not where our activism stops. Protecting and amplifying trans voices must continue if we are to see a true shift in the tide against homophobic and transphobic legislation.