Opinion: Sadly, Freedom of Speech Loses Again

The following opinion piece was submitted by Kathy Uradnik, Professor of Political Science at St. Cloud State University. 

There were no winners in last week’s controversy over the display of political messages by the SCSU College Republicans, but there were plenty of losers.  They included our student body, which once again witnessed what has become all too common on college campuses:  that the constitutional rights of some can be canceled by the objections of others.

Whatever one thought about the College Republicans’ display in the Atwood Student Center, there is no dispute as to its constitutionality:  it was protected free speech.  America has a deep and abiding commitment to freedom of speech; it is a core right.  The first amendment protects many forms of speech, but reserves its highest protection for political speech.  If a nation is to be based on diversity and the diverse viewpoints that come with it, speech must be protected.  As I explained to the campus community at a well-attended seminar last school year, “hate speech” and offensive speech are protected free speech.  That some of us might be upset, hurt, angry, or frightened by such speech does not change this fact.

The campus community must remember just how much heartache Americans have endured to protect this cherished freedom.  Examples include Albert Snyder, who mourned at his Marine son’s funeral while protestors shouted vile homophobic slurs; Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Illinois, who found themselves faced with the prospect of the American Nazi Party marching through their town; and our Vietnam and Gulf War veterans, who watched American flags burned in protest, knowing that their work to defend freedom also protected the right of those back home to destroy this national symbol.  All of these acts were offensive and hurtful to some group of individuals, but we tolerated them to keep free speech truly free, for all of us.  This is one of democracy’s toughest lessons to swallow, but also among its most important.

Indeed, anyone who would defend Colin Kaepernick’s right to kneel during an NFL football game must also defend the right of College Republicans, or any other student group, to engage in offensive speech.  The Constitution does not differentiate between the two, and neither should we.

President Vaidya briefly mentioned freedom of speech in his e-mail address to the campus community.  While I applaud him for noting that the College Republicans’ display was protected free speech, this admission came after a lengthy, highly personal condemnation of unrelated off-campus behavior.  It was unfortunate that he conflated the anonymous, criminal behavior occurring off campus with the legal expression of political ideas by our students on campus.  I understand and share his concern over the well being of the students who met with him; it’s sad that the administration did not convey the same level of concern for the constitutional rights of the College Republicans.

More inexplicable, however, was the statement issued by the Executive Board of the Faculty Association, which questioned whether the College Republicans had actually engaged in free speech:  “The students dispute, and so can we, whether the free speech argument regarding the display truly fit.”  Of course students can be expected to question what constitutes free speech; that’s part of what they learn in college.  But faculty members should know better.  Instead of standing up for the constitutional rights of all in its e-mail to the campus community, the Faculty Association took sides:  “We faculty have the opportunity and responsibility to support and reassure our students so that they can feel safe and included at our University.”  They weren’t talking about the College Republicans, whose display lasted less than 48 hours.  The authors admitted as much, noting their satisfaction that the display had been removed:  “We faculty should join in the collective sigh of relief brought by those actions.”

Not me.  I reject the idea that faculty members should feel relieved when student voices are silenced.  I am embarrassed to be associated with the Faculty Association’s message, which I suspect does not speak for the majority of the faculty at St. Cloud State, but rather only for its misguided union leadership.  The Executive Committee sent an ominous message to our students:  faculty members support you, until you engage in speech that we don’t like.  Then we would be relieved if you would just go away.  Of course, we’ll thank you for your civility if you go away quickly and quietly. 

No one is asking the Faculty Association to agree with the College Republicans or to associate with them.  But every faculty member on this campus should respect the right of all students to fully engage in the life of the university and to stand up for what they believe in.  While it might make some of us feel better, no one should celebrate the fact that the College Republicans’ display was taken down.  As a public university, we are required to respect the constitutionally protected processes that allow our students to be heard.

Let’s be clear:  SCSU should be a welcoming place for all.  But we demonstrate a collective intolerance when we shut down free speech because we disagree with it.  That’s no way to treat our students or to attract new students.  We will never become a welcoming community until we give the same respect to others’ viewpoints as we do to our own.  Constitutional rights are not contingent on tests for sympathy, efficiency, or expediency.  Our students deserve faculty and administrative leaders who embrace that fact and who guard the free speech rights of all, lest their own be lost.

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