Free speech vs. free speech


At the University of Wisconsin, students can say whatever they want, but they can’t voice their opinion if it means disrupting another person’s effort to convey their own message. Interrupt a campus speech or presentation, and you could be suspended or expelled per the recent approval of a new university policy.

The student protestors at the university claim they’re exercising their right to free speech by shouting down speakers whose ideas they find abhorrent. The speakers contend that it is their own freedom of speech that is being denied when they cannot speak over the shouts of the protestors.

So, who’s right?

Free speech, with conditions

Leaders at the University of Wisconsin defend their new policy by saying that students need to listen to all sides of issues and arguments. “Perhaps the most important thing we can do as a university is to teach students how to engage and listen to those with whom they differ,” says Ray Cross, president of the University of Wisconsin system.

For many young adults, college is a time of “finding yourself.” Opportunities abound to absorb and express your own changing mind. However, college is also a time to respect what others say. And, perhaps, to know when to keep your mouth shut.

“The university is probably right, assuming they enforce the policy neutrally, don’t suspend or expel non-disruptive protestors, and allow for protestors to schedule their own speech or presentation,” says Caleb Ballew, associate attorney with Martinson and Beason in Huntsville, Alabama.

Quiet on campus at what cost?

Rather than allowing for more free speech without fear of backlash, the policy at Wisconsin could suppress free speech. One of the big problems is that the policy does not clearly define “disruptive conduct.” Not knowing where the boundaries lie could stunt students’ willingness to invoke freedom of expression.

Moreover, those who object to the new policy at Wisconsin believe its motivations are more political than social, particularly in the wake of protests against far-right speakers, namely, right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulus at the University of California-Berkeley, and ex-Breitbart editor and conservative columnist Ben Shapiro at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Protests and counter-protests

No one ever said the First Amendment was pretty and tied up with a neat little bow. Protests are, inherently, about disrupting the status quo. But what if a white supremacist group is spewing hate across campus – can no one say a word in response? Does the University of Wisconsin consider hate speech free speech?

Millennials, such as Jo, a recent Vassar College graduate, seem especially open to the argument that there should be limits on free speech. “Free speech does not and should not mean speech free from public or social consequences,” she says.  “If one’s free expression directly targets and harms the public perceptions, safety, livelihood, and well-being of others – particularly others whose history is heavily composed of marginalization based on race, class, sexuality, religion, or disability – it may be ‘free speech,’ but it is certainly worth denouncing. ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ is a nice soundbite, but the words hold little weight in today’s world.”