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Free speech on campus is not under attack

The constitutional right to freedom of speech is often invoked in discussions of political dialogue on college campuses. Many students feel that free speech is somehow under attack in their communities and that speakers and students are being silenced, creating so-called “echo chambers,” specifically echo chambers of the political left. 

I take issue with the way free speech is often loosely tied to concepts of ideological balance. Last spring, some students were upset that our college brought in abolition-feminist scholar Angela Davis, claiming that Davis’s leftist politics only reinforce the already left-leaning campus culture. The claim was that the college rarely brings in “conservative speakers,” thereby not giving students understandings of “both sides.” This was considered, to some, a violation of free speech for the political right, an indication that a wider range of political ideology is repeatedly silenced at St. Olaf.

First, this understanding of political dialogue is patently reductive of the vast continuum of political leftism. Angela Davis’s particular mode of scholarship and specific focus on the prison system differs greatly from other leftist speakers. For example, Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, a pro-choice lobby, gave a talk on campus recently. Although both can be considered agents of the political left, Hogue’s talk was quite politically liberal and discussed movement within the context of the United States government system, while Davis is a proponent of radically reimagining governmental possibilities and critiquing the failings of late capitalism.

Many students believe that leftist speakers, even as disparate as these two, reinforce some abstract, homogeneous left-wing ideology. This belief misunderstands the nature of political dialogue. It is not limiting or creating an “echo-chamber” to engage with these differing political ideologies – even if these ideologies are both considered left-of-center. This kind of complex engagement is still dialectical and intellectually productive, but is often uselessly reduced to being called “liberal,” a term that does not accurately apply to scholars like Davis.

Furthermore, the reduction of these scholars into one messy leftist grouping called “liberal” reinforces the false notion of “two sides” in politics. While there are two dominant political parties in this country, political beliefs within and outside these parties are hugely divergent – as evidenced by the Angela Davis and Ilyse Hogue example. 

To describe our politics as one side against another is simplistic and harmful, only making political dialogue across ideologies more difficult. This problem returns to the misconstruing of free speech with ideological balance; there is not really a way to “balance” ideologies when you begin to see the impossibly large spectrum of political possibility.

Additionally, to argue that students need speakers from all political backgrounds imagines all ideologies as equally valuable and worthy of scholarly discussion. This is plainly untrue. Simply because an ideology exists in this country and people have the right to believe it does not mean that we must uphold it or give it credence. Indeed, free speech legally allows people to hold any beliefs, even hateful or outright wrong beliefs, but colleges and individuals are not at all obligated to give platform to these ideologies. 

Freedom of speech does not imply freedom of speech amplified. For example, the increased visibility of Neo-Nazism as a political ideology in this country does not imply that we must now invite a Neo-Nazi speaker in order to better understand the “other side.” This may be an extreme example, but the logic by which students argue for unlimited and amplified free speech does not distinguish the politically conservative and the politically bigoted, the scholarly valuable and the needlessly provocative.

Conclusively, the concept of the “liberal echo chamber” on campus needs to be revisited with a broader and better understanding of what free speech means and to what we owe any particular political ideology. There is no specific obligation to give a platform to an ideology simply because it exists and is legally protected. 

Thus, as students, we ought to encourage our college to bring speakers that are intellectually challenging and engaged with scholarship, providing us a more complex understanding of political dialogue, not simply people with perspectives from “both sides.”