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.
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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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