The future of freedom of speech

Recently, I have come to believe that the issue of free expression on college campuses, and specifically how it is today restricted, is the biggest threat to the future of the American republic that we face.

Never was this more apparent to me than when I read the findings of a new study conducted by John Villasenor, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and University of California at Los Angeles professor.

Villasenor conducted a nationwide survey of 1,500 undergraduate students at four-year colleges, and attempted to ascertain their understanding of the First Amendment itself, as well as their attitudes broadly about free speech as a concept.

What he found was deeply depressing.

When asked whether or not the First Amendment protected “hate speech” — something which it unquestionably does — only 39 percent of students said that it did; 44 percent believed that it did not.

But more disturbing than the ignorance over the meaning of the First Amendment was the attitudinal beliefs of college students as it related to speech.

People gather during a demonstration against a planned speech by conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro at the University of California Berkeley on Sept. 14. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Presented with a hypothetical situation whereby a public university is bringing a controversial speaker to campus, Villasenor asked if it would be acceptable for a student group to shut down the speech by loudly disrupting it.

Fifty-one percent of respondents said yes, including 62 percent of Democrats and, astonishingly, 39 percent of Republicans, who are typically the ones who get shouted down and shut out of college campuses.

But worst? Students were also asked if it would be acceptable for a student group to use violence to prevent that same controversial speaker from speaking, and a mind-numbingly high percentage — 19 percent — said that yes, in fact, it was.

If this doesn’t scare you, whatever your political affiliation, you don’t fully comprehend just how dangerous this trend is to the future of this country.

The First Amendment is not only the cornerstone of this society, it is the cornerstone of all free societies.

In the last 10 years or so, college students have gone in a terrifying direction as it relates to respect for, and belief in, the concept of free speech. This is a frightening change to American attitudes about free speech, and it is directly related to the rise of the idea that words and speech are harmful.

The philosophy that words represent real harm, and the conflation of simple words with physical assault, is responsible for the rise of political correctness, the idea of “safe spaces,” microaggressions and every other absurd belief that seeks to restrict certain kinds of unfavored speech.

If speech is a violent, harmful action, then violence becomes an acceptable response to it. And that is exactly what we are seeing happen today, as we see a rise in a certain type of militarism — particularly with groups like Antifa — whereby certain ideas and speech are so contemptuous that the response to it is not “more speech,” but physical violence.

Political correctness is followed by the intimidation of people into silence, so they don’t even give voice to their real opinions. Then comes the drowning out and bullying of the remaining few who actually speak their mind, however unpopular. And finally you get violence.

We have evolved from a society that used to teach its children about “sticks and stones” causing harm, while “words will never hurt me,” into one where we believe that you have a right to silence speech that you find offensive, because of the apparent damage done to our increasingly fragile minds, and our inability to cope with it.

This is creating a society of people that define themselves by their grievances, typically directed at those people they feel are “oppressing” them or violating the bubble wrap they have constructed around them.

Soon, these people will be the lawyers and judges in our society, and if you think these philosophies about speech will not infect future jurisprudence as it relates to free speech, you are absolutely kidding yourselves. This will have a destructive, horrifying influence on the future of this country.

This issue can’t be political. Liberals can’t support suppressing speech because they despise conservatives, nor can conservatives, aggrieved and angry, support suppression of speech in reverse because they despise liberals.

I am reminded of the words of Thomas Paine. “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression: for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach unto himself.”

This is a philosophy we have lost today, and one we desperately need to believe in again. If we don’t rediscover our faith in this concept, it is our children and grandchildren who will pay the heaviest price.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.