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The importance of free speech

| Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I’m thankful that Notre Dame hasn’t been in the news this past month. We’ve seen plenty of our peer institutions in the news for the wrong reasons, and I’m glad we haven’t followed. Yale, Mizzou and scores of other universities have been in national news because of student unrest due to racial issues. Why haven’t we? It may be because Notre Dame has a unique sense of community, because students here are uniquely open-minded or because we are able to have civil discussion. I really don’t know. Regardless, our students and our University have a lot that they can learn from the issues that other colleges have faced, particularly related to speech and racial issues on college campuses.

One thing must be clarified first. Commentators and students alike frequently cite the first amendment when they talk about places like Yale; specifically, in order to defend what students say. They say that the First Amendment protects free speech, and thus anything (aside from the explicit exceptions) can be said on campus. Quite clearly, however, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to places like Notre Dame. The First Amendment only protects people from the government restricting speech; as a private university, Notre Dame is free to do what it wants. If it wanted to, Notre Dame could ban all hate speech or racially insensitive speech. So why shouldn’t it?

Free speech is vital at a university for a variety of reasons. First, there is the theoretical reason. College is a place for learning in a variety of ways. As a university committed to the liberal arts, we are committed to (and should continue to be committed to) being challenged, discussing difficult topics and learning from other opinions. The best way to learn about yourself and what you believe in is by confronting people who believe exactly the opposite of what you believe. Educationally and academically, free speech is the best way to prepare students for the future and for life.

But most people who oppose free speech don’t oppose the theoretical and academic reasons. They believe that speech that offends is wrong and has no place in society. Most people who advocate for restricting some speech have legitimate gripes that some things that people say are patently wrong. So much so, in fact, that people feel disrespected and marginalized what other people do. Culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, ignorant comments about race or just blatant hate can have real, tangible effects on people of all kinds. A lot of people may not understand, and it may sound simple, but words and actions can have a real negative impact on people. But the solution isn’t getting rid of these words and actions: history shows it.

In the 1960s, the KKK had tens of thousands of members spread all over the country, particularly concentrated in Southern states. In addition to their (illegal) acts of violence and terror that they perpetrated, the Klan (and other racist groups and people) enjoyed popularity partly due to the legal actions that they took. In states such as North Carolina, Klan rallies (which were protected by free speech and the right to assemble) would occur daily. The Klan and other racist groups surely perpetuated hate, albeit in a lot more drastic way than we see today. But the solution wasn’t to censor or outlaw these rallies. Rather, civil rights activists pushed for action. Using their freedom of speech, these people changed minds, changed laws, but never took away the freedom that all people had to speak their minds. Today, the KKK has significantly fewer members than they did in the 1960s and continues to be on the decline. Nothing they have said and nothing that they do say is illegal or banned, yet today they’re ostracized and stigmatized by most of the country. We don’t need to censor to create change.

There is no right to not be offended, and there is no right to censor opinions that you disagree with. But there is a right, a duty even, to change the things that you believe are wrong. And the ability to speak freely guarantees everyone can do that. The best way to affect change is to encounter what is wrong, acknowledge it and do all that you can to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. If someone says something racist, acts insensitively or offends someone, the solution isn’t to punish and forbid their action. That breeds hostility and doesn’t actually create change — it merely enforces it upon others. There will always be racist people, racist thoughts and insensitive actions. To change, to really have an impact on people, we must change how they think, not how they act or speak. Only then will we see progress. Only then will society change.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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