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Free Speech for All

SRINIVAS BALAGOPAL

STAFF WRITER

When protesters disrupted an appearance by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos at University of California, Berkeley, what were they actually trying to achieve?

In protesting this hate-spewing provocateur, 1,500 protesters at Sproul Plaza set fires near the campus bookstore, damaged the construction site of a new dorm, and even pepper sprayed a woman wearing a red Trump hat. Rather than demonstrating hatred, this protest provided Yiannopoulos a megaphone and turned anti-hate advocates into
anti-speech villains.

What is sadly ironic is that this incident occurred at the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. The Civil Rights Movement used activism and free speech rights to mobilize students against war, racism, and segregation. Organizations such as the First Amendment Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Southern Poverty Law Center argue that more speech, not less; more support, not silence; and more engagement, not apathy are the answers to ending bigotry and hate. While sit-ins and rallies were effective, setting fires and pepper spraying others only harden positions, making any sort of rational choice or smart compromise
more difficult.

Berkeley reminds us that hate speech, however full of venom, is constitutionally protected. When we shut down one minority’s [however hateful] right to speak, we find ourselves on a slippery slope. Who decides what
is “offensive”?

For years, universities have used safe spaces, trigger warnings, and speech codes to shield students from offensive speech, in an effort to promote rational, honest, and civil debate. These “shields” have been appropriated as “political correctness,” but the consequences
were startling.

Consider a 2010 nationwide survey, by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which showed that 82 percent of faculty and 65 percent of students were afraid to express their views and ideas because of these “shields”, which cause a chilling effect on academic freedom.

For many of us, the term “politically correct” implies notions of tolerance and civility – that we are able to sympathize or indulge beliefs or practices differing from our own worldviews. But when “political correctness” causes us to avoid even talking about issues, then we have gone too far.

A Pew research poll conducted last July supports the notion that 59 percent of Americans believe “too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use,” while 39 percent think “people need to be more careful about the language they use to avoid offending people with different backgrounds.” Balancing tolerance and civility, along with open discussion, is the key towards building a more
positive society.

The 1960s were centered on individual freedom, expression, and equal rights. In our current society 50 years later, there has never been a more important time for us to re-discover student activism that is civil, supportive, and engaged. Whether or not we may want to hear the controversial content of others’ words, let us strive to support one another in these trying times.

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