We must guard our right to free speech

Christian Gonzalez/ Staff Writer


On Friday, Sept. 23,  Dr. Ivan Havel offered some insightful comments in a lecture he hosted named “Conversations Over the Prison Wall: Intellectual Freedom and the Dawn of Democracy” here at FIU. Ivan Havel, along with his brother Vaclav, were courageous dissidents during the times of communist tyranny and oppression in Czechoslovakia.

His discussion was an unabashed defense of free speech, free association and intellectual freedom.

Dr. Havel spoke about the importance of being opposed to government censorship. He mentioned as well what he called “oases of intellectual freedom” that existed behind the Iron Curtain—hidden parlors, the apartments of specific friends, the meeting places of certain church groups. These were areas in which the absurdities of communist rule could be freely challenged and discussed.  

Polemics like his are sorely needed in the climate of political correctness now prevalent in university campuses across America. In November of 2015, Pew Research published a study which revealed something truly frightening—a full 40% of millennials favor government censorship of “offensive statements about minorities.”

In all fairness, those who espouse positions like that are likely unaware of the logical conclusions of such a wicked policy. It must be pointed out, therefore, that to ask state authorities to censor “offensive statements” is to invite the most horrifying abuses of government power.

Reasons for this abound, but two stand out in particular.

First, what exactly constitutes an “offensive” statement? After all, the same sentence, if said to two different people, can evoke wildly different responses— for example laughter in one case, indignation in another. Granted this subjectivity, it would be insensible to make government the arbiter of the things and ideas we are fit to hear.

As John Stuart Mill elegantly wrote, “Those who desire to suppress it [speech], of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

Second, even if we could somehow agree on what is “offensive,” how would the state go about enforcing such a law? Police departments are already overwhelmed with handling easily definable crimes—murder, theft, etc. To enforce a law against offensive speech, they would require either a massive expansion of personnel in order to fill the streets with eyes and ears, or they would be forced to turn to what would, essentially, be snitches.

Encouraging people to inform on one another in such a grotesque manner would wreak appalling damage on a democratic society.

Although no anti-free speech law like this currently exists, the effects of such thinking are already discernible.

In 2014, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined to speak at Rutgers University after students there protested her speaking engagement. That same year, George Will, a renowned conservative intellectual, was disinvited from Scripps College for taking a controversial stance on university policies regarding “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions.” Comedian Bill Maher almost received the same treatment from students at UC Berkeley over comments he made that were critical of Islam.

The difficulties with defining allegedly disparaging speech are herein perfectly illustrated. To condemn certain tenets of Islam, or to denounce the notion of a microaggression, should be a matter of free inquiry and debate. But no matter, down came the self-righteous hammer of censorship on those who pointed these things out.

Ironically, the people facilitating such practices are principally harming themselves by dispensing with their own opportunity to learn from people as remarkable as Condoleezza Rice.

Most of the United States could correctly be described as a pool of intellectual freedom and academic discovery. Nevertheless, instances of putrid swamps of close-mindedness and censorship occasionally surface.

If nobody fights to drain these swamps, they will proliferate. The front lines of this battlefield have been drawn on university campuses. It’s about time we intellectually arm ourselves to jealously guard the right to express our minds without fear of retribution.




The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of FIU Student Media Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community.



Image retrieved from Flickr.

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