Divisiveness does not equate to freedom of speech

As increasing political tensions proliferate college campuses, the debate over the limitations on free speech has become more heated. These debates have even sparked protests and violent conflicts at some universities. While freedom of speech has long been considered indispensable in the democratic process, great disagreement exists in regard to which opinions and ideologies should be shared by speakers invited to college campuses.

This debate has pervaded commencement speeches at multiple universities. At Bethune-Cookman University, many students booed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and refused to sit during her remarks as a form of protest. Students had petitioned school officials to disinvite DeVos following her claim that historically black colleges and universities were “real pioneers” of school choice, despite the impediments that students of color historically faced during segregation. Similarly, a large number of students walked out of Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame in protest of his policies.

These incidents raise concerns about increasing intolerance at universities as universities seek to avoid controversial topics for fear of raising hostilities. Fifty-four percent of students reported that the climate on their campus prevents people from expressing their opinions in fear that they might offend others. It appears that recent controversies have created trepidation in regard to open discussion.

In the Louisiana House of Representatives, Republican leader Lance Harris has responded to the increasingly frequent protests against guest speakers on campuses by proposing a bill intended to protect freedom of expression. The bill requires that colleges adopt statements asserting their commitment to free speech while refusing to shield students from unwelcome speech unless it expresses violent or criminal intent. Universities would be required to punish students who disrupt speakers on campus. Louisiana’s Board of Regents will also create a 15-member “committee on free expression,” which would annually report on barriers to free speech that it finds.

The governing boards of Louisiana universities, including Tulane, would still be able to regulate speech on campus considered illegal, defamatory or a form of harassment. The bill, however, would limit students’ ability to protest instances of speech that they find inappropriate or offensive.

Recent events illustrate how contentious free speech issues are on campus, specifically the controversy following the Undergraduate Student Government’s decision to grant Turning Point USA, a provocative conservative group, active club status on campus. The passage of Harris’s law restricts the ability of Tulane students to protest speakers and events organized by clubs, including Turning Point USA, permitting offensive and possibly intimidating language to permeate campus.

Though many, like Harris, believe that limiting speakers inhibits the free exchange of ideas and violates the constitutional right to freedom of speech, students must be protected from figures that are divisive and offensive, especially in cases where those being invited to campus have a history of inappropriate and inflammatory rhetoric. Leadership, both in government and on college campuses, must take all viewpoints into account, allowing students to express themselves freely, even if they choose to express themselves through protesting others’ words and actions.

This is an opinion article and does not reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo. Madeline is a rising sophomore at Newcomb-Tulane College. She can be reached at [email protected].

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