Conservatives Should Lead the Way in Free Speech
We best advance the conservative movement by listening sincerely and then seeking to persuade with winsomeness and humility.
Do college students value free speech? Or do they prefer restrictions on free speech so that specific groups of students can feel safe? In the last few years we’ve seen Ben Shapiro need north of $600,000 in campus security to speak at U.C. Berkeley. We’ve seen violence directed towards a speaker at Middlebury College. And who can forget the events that unfolded at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville?
According to a Gallup survey released earlier this month, student attitudes on these matters remain fluid.
Campus Climate Deters Free Speech
The Gallup surveyors asked students the following question in both 2016 and 2017: Does the climate on your campus prevent some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive? In 2016, only 54% said yes. In 2017, it was up to 61%. An increase was observed in all kinds of colleges: publics, privates, big schools, and small schools.
Almost all college students (92%) say that liberals can freely express themselves on campus. But only 69% of students say the same is true of conservatives.
It’s not clear that students entirely object to free speech restrictions. Only 35% of students think that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. The partisan split on this question was wide: Only 25% of Democrats think hate speech is protected, compared to 47% of Republicans.
Free Speech or Inclusion?
Another place the Gallup survey showed a partisan split was on the issue of free speech vs. inclusion. To be clear, the majority of students think both free speech (89%) and inclusion (73%) are important to our democracy. The majority holds among Republicans (91% value free speech; 69% value inclusion) and Democrats (88% value free speech; 91% value inclusion).
But when asking which is more important, 66% of Democrats prioritize promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming of diverse groups over one that protects citizens’ free speech rights. Only 30% of Republicans agree. Overall, students tilt toward inclusion by a 53% to 46% margin.
Why pit free speech and inclusion against each other? Because there’s an inherent trade-off between free speech — Ben Shapiro on a liberal campus — and the idea that students need to be protected from offense. The logic for “speech codes,” for example, is that one student’s need for protection is greater than another student’s right to speak.
College students are evenly split here: 49% approve of speech codes that restrict offensive or biased speech on campus — speech that would be permitted off campus. What about shouting down a speaker? More than one in three (37%) say that’s acceptable in some cases. Violence? “Only” 10% are okay with a violent response to what they deem as offensive speech.
True Tolerance Requires Thick Skin
So there’s plenty to be concerned about. If we’re really going to value inclusion, we must learn to tolerate — not necessarily agree with, but truly tolerate — those with differing viewpoints. That presupposes we’re willing to expose ourselves to those differing viewpoints. Even if such exposure comes with occasional discomfort or offense.
Similarly, the best way to oppose harmful ideology is not with censorship but with persuasion. When inflammatory rhetoric is forbidden, it goes underground and becomes more potent. When it’s debated it can be refuted.
Conservatives Should Model a Commitment to Free Speech
Laura Ingraham is a respected conservative voice. So many were drawn to her recent comment that basketball players should “shut up and dribble.” She was responding to Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James expressing his political views to a media outlet.
Conservatives should reject this mindset. Mr. James has as much right as anyone else to express himself. The fact that he plays basketball is not a disqualification. I may not agree with much of what Mr. James says. But he has as much right to express himself as anyone else. We’re better off refuting his ideas than belittling his right to express them.
We see this winsomeness in Kyle Kashuv, a student from Stoneman Douglas High School, where a horrific shooting occurred last month. Kashuv takes a more conservative view on the Second Amendment and how best to deter school violence. But he tweeted this about his classmates, “While I disagree with what my classmates propose on policy and politics, they’re good people who’ve been trying to advocate for what they believe in. I disagree with most of what they say, but attacking them as people is wrong. Dissecting their arguments is more effective.”
While I disagree with what my classmates propose on policy and politics, they're good people who've been trying to advocate for what they believe in. I disagree with most of what they say, but attacking them as people is wrong. Dissecting their arguments is more effective.
— Kyle Kashuv (@KyleKashuv) March 20, 2018
I was impressed by Senator Rubio’s willingness to attend the CNN Townhall forum immediately after the Parkland school shooting. He knew he’d take a beating because of his NRA support. Others stayed away. But Rubio responded to the teens’ and parents’ anger with statesmanship and class. In the March For Our Lives rally, and elsewhere, it’s been disappointing to see Rubio demonized. As Erick Erickson pointed out, Rubio is one of the few Republicans willing to find common ground with those with whom he has disagreements.
Conservatives should lead the way in the support of free speech. Including the speech of those we disagree with. We best advance the conservative movement by listening sincerely and then seeking to persuade with winsomeness and humility.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).