Don’t swap free speech for safe space at Metro State

Don’t swap free speech for safe space at Metro State
Photo courtesy of skylitup, Flickr Creative Commons.

Jonathan Hiatt

Jonathan Hiatt is a guest writer and currently enrolled at Metropolitan State University.

I read with inter­est Mitesh Rai’s opin­ion piece (“Char­lottesville on my mind”) in the Sep­tem­ber 2017 issue of The Met­ro­pol­i­tan. I agree with Rai that the events in Char­lottesville on August 1112 were tragic and rep­re­sented a sig­nif­i­cant step back­ward as a nation.

Our col­lege cam­pus should fos­ter a cul­ture of respect. I’m proud to be a stu­dent at a uni­ver­sity that val­ues diver­sity and has cod­i­fied those val­ues in its mis­sion and policies.

How­ever, I won­der if Rai and many col­lege stu­dents and even admin­is­tra­tors fail to con­sider some­thing: aren’t we backpedal­ing on our com­mit­ment to free speech when we demand a “safe space” to espouse our views? Whether we hold pop­u­lar or unpop­u­lar views, why should we think we can share them with­out repercussions?

The free­dom of “free speech” is never with­out con­se­quences. That is true for both the white suprema­cist and those who dis­agree with him. One will always face the pos­si­bil­ity that his or her speech may be met with agree­ment, dis­agree­ment, scorn, deri­sion or, at worst, vio­lence. Safe spaces are an attempt to cir­cum­vent this real­ity. One must deal with the poten­tial out­comes that result from his or her speech.

Orig­i­nally insti­tuted by col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties dur­ing the Viet­nam War, the stated pur­pose of free speech zones is to pro­tect the safety of those attend­ing a protest. But as we saw at the 2004 Demo­c­ra­tic National Con­ven­tion in Boston dur­ing the Bush admin­is­tra­tion, and later under Obama and now Trump, many pro­test­ers have been placed in what amounts to a “free speech cage.” It com­pletely cuts them off from com­mu­ni­ca­tion and access to mass media. Out of sight, out of mind. I don’t want that to hap­pen at Metro State.

I agree with Fred­er­ick Siebert, author of “Four The­o­ries of the Press.” He wrote: “Let all with some­thing to say be free to express them­selves. The true and sound will sur­vive. The false and unsound will be van­quished. Gov­ern­ment should keep out of the bat­tle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other.”

When we speak of a “mar­ket­place of ideas,” we are giv­ing a ratio­nale for free­dom of expres­sion anal­o­gous to the eco­nomic con­cept of the free mar­ket. Just as we can sort reli­able com­mer­cial prod­ucts such as cars from the unre­li­able ones, so too it is with ideas. Even­tu­ally word gets around (lit­er­ally!) about infe­rior ideas. They are unlikely to gain wide­spread acceptance.

How­ever, we do not prac­tice laissez-faire cap­i­tal­ism. We do not have a com­pletely free mar­ket for cars or wid­gets. The same is true of ideas.

Not all speech is pro­tected speech. The fol­low­ing forms of speech are not pro­tected: defama­tion, “fight­ing words,” incite­ment to take law­less action, child pornog­ra­phy, among oth­ers. But our sys­tem of jurispru­dence errs on the side of the mar­ket­place of ideas. The Supreme Court enshrined this in our pub­lic pol­icy in their deci­sion in Bran­den­burg v. Ohio (1969).

Per­haps the best response to unpop­u­lar speech, then, is to allow chal­leng­ing con­ver­sa­tions when­ever and wher­ever pos­si­ble— includ­ing here at Metro State. The truth will emerge. There exists strength in num­bers. Cooler heads will prevail.

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