Twice this fall, self-identified white supremacists were invited to speak on Columbia’s campus, supposedly in the name of discourse and free speech. These events sparked the most pertinent controversy of the semester: should the university invoke its right to control who speaks on campus and censor speakers who promulgate hateful rhetoric?
Despite multiple protests and petitions urging Columbia to crack down on white nationalist speakers, the university maintained the right of campus groups to invite any speaker they choose, as long as the group “ensure[s] that the event will be orderly and safe.” This consideration was especially relevant given that protests arose earlier in the year at other universities when similar speakers were slated to speak. Those protests turned into violent encounters between speakers’ supporters and protesters and sometimes led to police intervention.
The debate over free speech on campus and its effects are not simply reflections of micro-level grievances. They represent a greater issue in American politics. Conservatives have argued that such protests against extremist speakers have a nefarious objective, the general suppression of free speech, rather than are targeted objections to certain kinds of speech. As “political correctness” attracts an increasingly negative connotation for some in American politics, it has become common to frame those who protest far-right speech as denying First Amendment rights to those with whom they disagree. This argument is employed especially in response to the free speech debate on college campuses. Shortly after his scheduled appearance at UC Berkeley led to violent riots, Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right provocateur, asserted that “the left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.”
Though this idea is most often posited by the alt-right, it has also been embraced by mainstream conservatives in order to frame the issue of free speech in much the same way that they frame the issue of gun control: by telling their supporters that the left is attempting to take away fundamental American rights through a promotion of the liberal agenda and the silencing of conservative sentiments.
However, along with the right to free speech comes the right to oppose speech one may find offensive or harmful. The right of citizens to protest and picket events originated through Supreme Court decisions like Hague v. CIO and Thornhill v. Alabama, which determined that those who were being silenced by structural inequalities should have access to an outlet for their grievances. When conservatives claim that the left is anti-free speech because college students protest hateful speakers, they are using the First Amendment as a political weapon to delegitimize mainstream liberalism as a whole. In using what is supposed to be a core American value as a divisive strategy, conservatives threaten bipartisanship itself.
The current administration has proved an especially friendly environment for skewed perspectives on free speech and censorship. President Donald Trump actively works against free speech under the guise of empowerment of his supporters, who are largely white, lower- and middle-class conservatives. Trump first addressed the notion of speech suppression during his presidential campaign, wherein he pushed the claim that political correctness is an attempt by the left to minimize the views of working-class Americans. He was praised by supporters for always “speaking his mind,” often in ways widely regarded as offensive. He condoned and even encouraged supporters to physically attack protesters at rallies.
Trump’s view of free speech is selective; he has also used various avenues to quell the speech of others. By condemning the news media regularly, encouraging the NFL to punish players who do not stand for the national anthem, banning the Washington Post from news events, threatening the license of broadcast stations that he believes cover him unfairly, denouncing legitimate mainstream news sources as “fake news,” encouraging his supporters to heckle the media at events, Trump has repeatedly stood on the side of censorship and suppression. Yet, he still boasts to his supporters that, as Americans, they have the right to say whatever they want.
These actions are not surprising when considering the president’s views on foreign leaders. Trump has shown unprecedented support for those heads of state who suppress free speech, praising leaders who impose state-controlled media and other repressive domestic policies within their countries. These recipients of support range from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who recently signed a law requiring non-state-controlled Russian media outlets to register as foreign agents, to President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has sanctioned the extrajudicial deaths of thousands of suspects in a brutal war on drugs. Trump has shown support with his actions as well as his words. On a recent visit to China, he refrained from holding a press conference to appease the Chinese government, though previous presidents from both parties have chosen to hold press conferences regardless of such requests.
Though Trump’s strategies mostly reflect his lack of political experience or understanding of foreign and domestic policy, the dangers of his actions are nonetheless evident. There are numerous historical precedents of seemingly indestructible democracies devolving into authoritarian regimes under repressive leadership. The populist leaders of these failed democracies often used the same tactics as Trump: they rallied support from those who felt excluded from the national discourse. These supporters’ discontent was exacerbated by the notion that government entities were discrediting or overlooking their ideas, pushing their speech to the side. When groups such as these perceive themselves as being pushed to the periphery of political life, the nation’s political stability can be threatened on a fundamental level.
The United States has consolidated its democracy to a degree unmatched by the vast majority of nation-states. The nation’s political institutions have shown time and time again that they are able to withstand economic, social, and military crises. However, we have entered an era in which political practices already deviate significantly from the established norm. There is a difference between this country’s past fascist movements, which were comparatively small and weak, and those that are supported by the current president, which appear to be growing. For example, if the far-right is able to popularize the idea that the left seeks to exclude certain groups from First Amendment protections by prohibiting or forcibly retaliating against campus speakers, they might be able to incite greater resistance to liberal movements in general. In the context of America’s fall from “full” to “flawed democracy” under some measures following the 2016 election, in a world that has seen much recent backsliding into authoritarian tendencies, threats to our democratic hallmarks such as free speech should be taken seriously.
The best way to approach the issue of free speech on campus and at the national level is not always clear. Sometimes protest is necessary, but some speakers only thrive off the attention and notoriety that protests bring. However we conduct the fight against hateful speech, we must do so as a nation with the intent of preserving the legitimacy of our democracy and its institutions, even as many attempt to erode them. This must be our common goal if we hope to avoid the growing threats imposed by the far-right.