The Importance of Balancing Perspectives and Protecting the Integrity of Free Speech

Omair Ali

Perspectives Editor

There appear to be ignominious forces nationwide that police college grounds through protest, harm, and civil unrest. This deplorable behavior can sometimes call for heckling during a convocation address or spending $600,000 to insure the safety at an event (and also to avoid a deadly altercation with domestic terror groups). In other words, there are people who will make it difficult or impossible for people to speak on college campuses.

The right to exercise free speech on college campuses has been a widely debated issue that has culminated in protests, assaults, hate speech, among many other campus incidents. Per the U.S. Constitution, free speech is the freedom to express speech as long as it does not infringe on anyone’s personal rights, provokes violence or incites threats, or is purely composed of offensive, unproductive rhetoric. According to this definition, hate speech is protected even if it does not infringe on personal rights. And yes, the Constitution also protects the rights of hecklers, protesters, and others who try to hamper the presence of a voice on campus. These impressions by pure, constitutional interpretation indicate the complexity of speakers’ rights and the legal permissions granted to those who wish to challenge speakers. More importantly, this open-ended, legal definition of free speech has led to varying interpretations of free speech from campus to campus. Per a 2016 national survey, 54% of students believe that “the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.” This gives the indication that many campuses prefer censorship over the complete diversity of thought.

Another recent survey published by the Brookings Institution reveals that 51% of undergraduate students believe it is okay for student groups to interrupt a speech by “repeatedly shouting” so that the “audience cannot hear the speaker.” The significant student support for “no-platforming” campaigns has implications on what students believe is appropriate behavior. It lies with students that feel personally attacked rather than the pursuit of intellectual broadening. But the perversion of decency among students is not only fallacious but also might hinder the intellectual mission in higher education.

Why Be Open and Respectful to Different Perspectives

Why should people care about balancing perspectives on most issues?

Well, humans live in a dynamic world filled with complex problems, for which having available a variety of ideas—controversial or not—is needed to further contemplate these problems and to better society. It can be difficult to determine whose opinions are valid. But free speech, when exercised properly, provides everyone the right to learn and share an array of perspectives so that they can be better informed and so that no one’s opinion is automatically labeled as fact—this is how a democracy works. Balancing voices, or inviting discourse on campus that fairly presents a variety of opinions on a particular issue, also should imply permitting voices incongruent with students’ views to be present on campuses. This is the most authentic way of fostering the development of our own views.

The other aspect of being open to perspectives entails a high degree of dignity and respect for the speaker— even if this means agreeing to disagree.

Often, students will challenge and unsuccessfully fail in overriding their university’s decision to bring a speaker on campus. But should this refusal to succumb to students’ wishes lead to later redresses that grant students the right to deliberately obstruct free speech? There is no denying that some universities have allowed speakers to come on campus while also allowing students to behave recklessly.

But no, students should never have the authority to decide what is considered an illegitimate exercise of free speech. While students may participate in peaceful action that calls for censorship, they should also not have the privilege to perform indecent actions in the name of their personal sensitivities. This is because higher education ought to incorporate presentations, speeches, and other forms of discourse on uncomfortable topics and views that sometimes creates disagreements. Of course, students will always have the right to their opinions about speakers, but at the same time, their opinions will also always require further cultivation and a broader understanding that entails an exposure to a breadth of ideas. Students might understand the idea of intellectual diversity within the classroom, but they do not acknowledge this concept equally when engaging social and political matters. So, why is it difficult for students to develop a tolerance, and especially, an appreciation or understanding of the importance for establishing an academic system that completely supports the diversity of thought, whether it is inside or outside the classroom?

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