Standing up for free speech on campus and against the speech police

There’s at least one upside to this era of political turmoil and partisan churn: It is certainly offering a lot of opportunities to discuss free speech.

It’s unfortunate that even football is a source for division instead of unity now. But after the initial shock of the tit-for-tat between the president and NFL players – which provided, as they say, more heat than light – I’ve been heartened by much of that national conversation over it. People are discussing what free speech really means, making important distinctions, and in many cases finding common ground.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions entered the fray over free speech this week. Sessions is perhaps the most controversial member of President Trump’s cabinet. I’ve disagreed with him on some matters, where I think a reflexively law-and-order approach has ignored important constitutional issues.

But I appreciate the stance he took Tuesday to stand up for free speech on college campuses. In a speech that Sessions asked to deliver at Georgetown’s law school, he said, “A national re-commitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue.”

The un-free campus
On campuses specifically, we’ve seen an erosion of free speech rights. More and more, speakers are being shouted down or even attacked to prevent a healthy debate. Student groups have pressured administrators to cancel speeches ahead of time. Universities try to restrict student speech to “free speech zones,” an Orwellian phrase that brings to mind totalitarian states (and Arrested Development).

A decline in understanding free speech and the First Amendment is a problem generally, but especially among the young. Polls have shown a shocking percentage of young people who would restrict free speech to prevent hurt feelings.

Too many don’t “get” what the First Amendment protects – including some of our own state lawmakers, who asked Washington State University to disband its College Republicans group (WSU’s administration declined, thankfully).

It’s good to see Sessions and the Justice Department taking these matters seriously. For more concrete examples of free speech suppression on campus, check out the website of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a fantastic group that stands up for students’ free speech rights and challenges college administrators to respect the Constitution. Trigger warning: Some of the stories may shock you and make your blood boil. Alternately, you may become numbed by the sheer number of abuses.

It’s more important to some, including many college administrators, to be seen as politically correct than to be staunch defenders of everyone’s speech rights. If we’re not protecting everyone’s right to speak, then we’re not really talking about free speech.

Suppression isn’t the answer
Yes, the First Amendment protects speech that makes many uncomfortable. Yes, it protects speech that is hateful (provided it does not constitute an actionable threat or advocate for an illegal act). A majority disagreeing with the content of some speech cannot and should not lead to speech suppression.

Having such wide-open protections of speech does result in outcomes we hate to see. The march in Charlottesville, for instance, was maddening and embarrassing. The views expressed were abhorrent.

The alternatives to free speech protections, however, are far worse. Trying to draw lines and make distinctions between what opinions can and can’t be spoken aloud leads to all kinds of larger problems. No one should have that power – not government officials, not campus administrators, not the police or the military or anyone else.

Inevitably, such schemes narrow political discourse and grow more restrictive and repressive with time. If Tiananmen Square horrified you, so should this.

The best response to bad speech isn’t suppression, it’s more speech. Hateful messages should be countered with messages of love and inclusion. Political debate and discourse should be encouraged, not restricted. There are enough echo chambers already.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.