The ubiquitous cloak of free speech on college campuses

Photo courtesy of Newtown Grafitti

By Zack Johnson

The mystique surrounding the phrase “freedom of speech” has enticed perhaps each and every individual residing beneath its seemingly omnipresent nature at one point or another.  While the once outright—or simply less legally defined—power of freedom of speech has been very minutely limited within certain situations, one affords a theoretically comprehensive and near-absolute ability to vocalize and exercise one’s beliefs to the fullest extent without punishment or backlash from the otherwise opposed.  At all times and without warning, one’s ideologies — however thoughtful or crude or symbolic in nature — may be both physically and hypothetically screamed from the rooftops without legitimate recourse.

     The very words you are reading right now, the paper these words are printed within, Lewis & Clark College, the clothes you are (potentially) wearing, the coffee at Maggie’s, the vegan options at the Bon, the student unions, your art classes, your weed, and so many other “offensive” commonplaces within college life exist because of our nation’s strong preference for freedom of speech.  Without such an ubiquitous cloak of protection, much of your life would simply not exist.

     The stifling of free speech is something as old as the Constitution itself, and much farther beyond.  So too, and with equal vigor, is the further promotion and application of free speech.  For there are as many proponents of free speech as there are clandestinely disguised opponents. 

     In a recent letter to their incoming 2020 freshman class, the University of Chicago proclaimed strongly their aversion to safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the banning of controversial speakers within campus-sanctioned events.  Citing the need for a diversity of ideas to be shared on campus, the University’s short statement reiterated the very suffocating nature of these restrictive censorship institutions.

     The problem with safe spaces specifically is not in their physical nature but rather what they promote.  One should always be able to use his or her own freedom in deciding against an idea, and more specifically to assemble with one’s peers to discuss and debate it in the process.  But to assemble to entirely avoid conflicting ideas is incredibly problematic.  This promotes a one-sided understanding of the phrase freedom of speech, one that ignores the very prominent freedom aspect, one that claims that some ideas do not even deserve to be heard, let alone debated.  This systematically discriminative approach otherwise completely destroys the legitimacy of the very safe spaces students are retreating to, not to mention the very existence of the medium they exist within, for some may be as opposed to safe spaces as whatever the safe spaces themselves are meant to shield students from.  Consequently, and using the logic of safe spaces, neither can be legitimate.

     For a college that seems to fight its overwhelming homogeneity in certain sectors, Lewis & Clark must also fight against the homogeneity of ideas promoted by classroom censorship, safe spaces, and the very many other avenues of restriction.  There is nothing “safe” about abusing freedoms granted to all people to promote your own agenda.

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