Legislation protecting controversial campus speakers will strengthen academic freedom

Fredrick Douglass was once shouted off stage during an abolitionist meeting. Afterward, he wrote that the liberty to speak one’s mind is meaningless when one does not have the right to share their thoughts and opinions. But in dozens of universities around the country, from the University of California Berkeley and Beloit University to our own campus, student protestors have challenged Douglass’ thoughts.

In one case at the University of Connecticut, the speaker, a conservative blogger and former White House correspondent for the Gateway Pundit Lucian Wintrich, was arrested for a “breach of peace” after one of the protesting students grabbed his speech notes and he followed her into the audience. In another case, at Cañada College in California, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the leader of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians, needed to relocate to a different room after students shouted accusations of fascism and white supremacy.

In each case, students hindered the free exchange of ideas with chants and obscenities. GW has not yet had incidents where speaker events were completely shut down, but students have still interrupted. Students chanted “shame” for about 15 minutes during an event hosting conservative talk-show host Michael Knowles, and students posted threatening flyers when conservative commentator Ben Shapiro visited campus.

Now, 17 states have proposed or approved laws designed to prevent students from disrupting controversial speakers. The legislation requires schools to punish students who interfere with the speech of others. The legislation has come under fire by those who believe that these interruptions are legitimate free speech, but critics fail to correctly define free speech, arguing that free speech is the freedom to say whatever one wants, whenever one wants, wherever one wants. Free speech should not give people the power to shout to the point where someone else is silenced. Many universities have failed to protect free speech on campus, so state lawmakers have the obligation to step up and take action.

Legitimate speech is not the power to use one’s voice to shut down those we disagree with. It is not a heckler’s veto – disrupting an event to silence a speaker. It is not the sound of a cowbell drowning out a speaker, which occurred at the University of Portland when conservative blogger Michael Strickland visited the school. Neither is it the shout of insults designed to silence someone, which happened when conservative protesters shouted down the majority leader of the Californian General Assembly at Whittier College. Free speech does not give people the power to prevent others from speaking.

In many cases, students protest an event but do not actually engage in discussion. Students wishing to engage in legitimate protest should do so by peacefully voicing their opinions outside of the venue and seeking conversation and engagement after the event. At Franklin and Marshall College, Flemming Rose, a controversial editor, was hosted by the school. Students elected to protest but demonstrated outside the venue. Rose was able to speak his mind and share his opinions, while students maintained their right to disagree through peaceful protest.

Universities are intended to spread knowledge, even when students do not agree with the opinions of the minority, whether it be liberal or conservative voices. Academic freedom is only possible because of the free exchange of ideas. The legislation could lead students to engage in discussion rather than protest. Even if students are unconvinced by a controversial guest’s argument, they might find that their own understanding of their position has been clarified and deepened.

The most important ideal, as Fredrick Douglass recognized 150 years ago, in free government is the free exchange of ideas. States are justified in protecting it when universities fail to do their job. All voices, particularly minority voices, must always be protected so universities can educate and students can learn.

Sam Swinson, a freshman majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.

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