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Free Speech and the Power of Culture

Free speech, like most rights in the United States Constitution, haven’t always been guaranteed. While this concept is the first thing to appear in the Bill of Rights, seven years after the First Amendment was ratified, Founding Father and second president John Adams passed the Sedition Act which suppressed “false” criticism of the government reportedly to address potential unrest spurred by the French government. The modern perception of freedom of speech came into being in the 20th century through a series of court decisions. I point this out because that is how most rights come to be: not by declaration, but by pressure from petitioners that stood firm against the tide of the status quo. Likewise, free speech on  college campuses evolved similarly to free speech across the nation. In 1754, the constituents of Columbia College committed themselves to a similar principle, religious liberty. By 1968, however, Columbia was in the middle of quelling civil unrest from its student population. Today, President Lee C. Bollinger has founded a center for the First Amendment and has defended freedom of speech as a principle on college campuses. However, if  that was the end of the story, I wouldn’t have an article.

Freedom of speech is one of the most contentious issues on college campuses today. Civil libertarians argue that colleges have departed from the notion so many of them aspire to. They argue that the use of speech codes  and bias response teams by certain colleges have created a chilling effect on speech, but that’s not where criticism stops. They say that in an ironic twist, it seems that students are the ones supporting a drawback in robust debate, citing numerous examples of students demanding their classmates disinvite speakers and self-censor if their intended speech deviates from the liberal norm. This social limitation on speech is generally referred to as political correctness, and the Republicans have railed against it, stating in their party platform, “colleges, universities, and trade schools must not infringe on their freedom of speech and association in the name of political correctness.”

However, this development did not grow in a vacuum. This modern debate over freedom of speech is intertwined with protests against colleges for what protestors described as harboring a racist environment. All of those protests you heard about in 2015 didn’t happen after one incident, they happened after thousands of incidents, many unreported or not dealt with. Progressives argue that when people counter by saying protesters are suppressing freedom of expression, what they really are saying is that they are reacting to being called out for racism and sexism and homophobia instead of making college a hospitable place to learn. As the Democrats put it in their platform, “while freedom of expression is a fundamental constitutional principle, we must condemn hate speech that creates a fertile climate for violence.”

This series has been about how the national election will affect Columbia and that’s important here as well. The Obama administration’s enforcement of Title IX has arguably made colleges more eager to launch investigations into speech that ostensibly constituted sexual harassment and a Trump administration would conceivably cut back on Title IX and a Clinton administration would continue on as usual. However, this is not just about policy policy. Freedom of speech in principle exists to foster fair debate on issues by allowing all sides to be heard and respected. Civil libertarians believe that student censorship and the overwhelming liberal bias in academia is harmful to that mission while progressives believe that a history of bias against women, queer people, and people of color make it so that those people feel uncomfortable speaking out within that system. Both critiques cannot be addressed effectively by policy. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be addressed at all. Obama and the White House have used the media to influence opinion on the ground, whether through the bully pulpit to pass the Affordable Care Act or through initiatives like the It’s on Us campaign to combat sexual assault. While Obama coming out for freedom of speech in his Howard commencement speech didn’t end the debate, the president has power  in affecting public opinion on an issue, and in that way, it still matters.

That being said, Hillary Clinton is of the Democratic Party and therefore is expected to follow the status quo, though libertarians fear her willingness to block ISIS from the internet may be a sign for more restrictions to come. Donald Trump will probably continue coarsening the political discourse even if he’s not elected. But a word of caution: Donald Trump has made a point of saying that he will sue everyone who says something bad about him, from newspapers to women accusing him of assault. If that sounds strangely familiar, it’s because that is punishing “false” criticism of the government. He doesn’t seem to have a grasp on why libel is so hard to prosecute in the United States, and it’s not quite clear that he’s figured that out yet. He might be electable for other reasons, and he might start a cultural moment where conservatives can return to the academy loud and proud. That development wouldn’t be on principle. It’s your choice in the end whether you’re comfortable with that or four more years of Democratic policy, but for something that would critical for any cultural candidate to address, Trump should try to be better.

Ufon’s mini-series, Columbia and the 2016 Election, will run through the November 8th Presidential Elections.

The Lion is the only Columbia publication with an open-submissions policy. To respond to this piece or to submit one of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com

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