BY SERAPHIM SPARROW
Several universities have rescinded invitations for the controversial conservative journalist Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at college campuses due to protests from students. While representatives of the universities do not openly condone the actions of their students and claim to be advocates of free speech, one thing is clear: there appears to no longer be a commitment to free speech among students on college campuses when the speech may contain ideas against established liberal beliefs.
CNN reported shortly after a protest at the University of California, Davis, that students were shouting in unison, “Say it loud, say it clear, racists are not welcome here.” Yiannopoulos’ planned speech at the University of California, Berkeley, was also canceled after the protests became violent and caused $100,000 in damage. These protests were in response to certain statements by Yiannopoulos which some interpret to have racist subtext. The problem is not that students are protesting but rather that the goal of the students at these respective universities is to silence Yiannopoulos rather than allow him to explain his different beliefs due to apparent faith in the stereotype that conservatives are racist. In other words, they are exercising their First Amendment rights in an attempt to ensure another may not.
When contemplating other examples of political philosophy being shut out of a college campus, one Supreme Court ruling comes to mind. In Dennis v. United States (1951), Eugene Dennis, a leader of the Communist Party USA, was found to have violated the Smith Act, which made it illegal to advocate for the forcible overthrow of the United States government. The appellee, Dennis and his conviction under the Smith Act rested on his belonging to the Communist Party, and the argument that by adopting texts written by Marx and Stalin, which advocated for violent revolution, as the Party’s political foundation, the individual members were guilty of the same. In an astounding decision that is only understandable because Dennis v. United States was decided during the Cold War, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction. However, Justice Douglas rightly disagreed with the decision. He stated in his dissenting opinion that “if [the books] are understood, the ugliness of Communism is revealed, its deceit and cunning are exposed, the nature of its activities becomes apparent, and the chances of its success less likely.” He went on to say that “full and free discussion even of ideas we hate encourages the testing of our own prejudices and preconceptions. Full and free discussion keeps a society from becoming stagnant and unprepared for the stresses and strains that work to tear all civilizations apart.”
Justice Douglas’ dissenting opinion expounds upon the writings of John Stuart Mill, a world-renowned philosopher and political theorist. Mill described situations similar to the silencing of Yiannopoulos. For example, he claimed that there will be those who will “think that no good, and some harm, comes of [the truth] being allowed to be questioned [and that] where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly.” Mill went on to say that “this is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.” Mill’s writings show exactly what the students on college campuses believe: they have the truth and thus discussion is no longer needed.
During the reconstruction-era, free speech was possible “only as long as national majorities were committed to protecting free speech.” This resulted in advocators for equality being silenced because the majority would not allow them to practice their First Amendment rights. Almost exactly the same suppression is occurring on college campuses today as the majority is silencing opposing views as if the time for free discussion is over. No individual would rightly say that one has to accept opposing arguments as truth, but to silence either side is ludicrous and has no place in a society such as the United States, where free speech is supposed to apply to everyone. Former President Barack Obama agreed, stating that “anyone who comes to speak and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them saying ‘you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn.”
To disagree with a different point of view is inevitable. However, let us take the advice of Justice Douglas, John Stuart Mill, and former President Barack Obama and hear the other side out. If beliefs cannot stand up before adversity, then maybe it is better to abandon them.