In the shouting match that is democracy, if your voice is louder than someone else’s, you aren’t silencing theirs; you’re just heard better. That’s a fact Janet Napolitano doesn’t seem to understand.
Napolitano, the President of the University of California, recently published an op-ed in the Boston Globe – as opposed to, say, a publication UC students or faculty would actually read – airing her concerns about college campuses suppressing students’ and faculty members’ free speech. She criticized students’ alleged attempts to suffocate controversial speech and argued that the way to deal with “unfounded speech is not with less speech,” but with “facts and persuasive (arguments).”
Being the guardian of free speech she is, Napolitano failed to mention a single specific incident of UC students “silencing” speech. Rather, amidst nostalgic recollections of the 1960s and her own childhood comebacks to censorship, she waved her pen in grandiose terms and managed to go 1,398 words without realizing she was just writing a vague, quasi-abstract rant.
What Napolitano fails to realize is that when students speak out against controversial speakers – or their speech – that’s an exercise of free speech, not a disenfranchisement of another’s. In other words, while students don’t have a right to quiet a questionable viewpoint, they most definitely have a right to disapprove of one. And if that expression of free speech coincidentally shadows a controversial viewpoint – condemns a professor or discourages a speaker – then so be it.
The crux of Napolitano’s argument lies in her belief that if one believes in the value of free speech, then it’s antithetical to “shout down” controversial viewpoints. That stance is definitely valid in instances of students physically barring people from speaking – much like what was done in the lovingly-named “Feminism Is Cancer” event held last year – or closing the shutters on publications that run controversial opinions – such as when Wesleyan students petitioned to defund their campus newspaper for running an op-ed on the Black Lives Matter movement.
But if holding signs and criticizing the campus administration for publicly endorsing or inviting guests with seemingly confrontational viewpoints is considered “silencing” free speech, then Napolitano has some homework to do.
Her own words betray her: When students express disagreement with a faculty’s or invited speaker’s viewpoint, that’s the very reaction of dialogue and conversation she advocates for. Sure, students can’t ban someone from drawing swastikas all over campus, but they can surely let him know that they disapprove of it.
And it’s not as though students’ criticisms of controversial speech are surefire ways to gag a contested viewpoint. College administrators are not naïve enough to cave into every single student demand. Take, for example, the 2015 UCLA conference celebrating Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, where the organizers invited Cornel West, an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward Palestine. Despite facing a large amount of pushback from various student groups – who argued West’s viewpoints disagree with what Heschel advocated for – the administration held closely to its judgement and didn’t waver.
Ideologies aside, this instance demonstrates the contradictions in Napolitano’s own argumentation. An overwhelmingly large vocal disagreement with a viewpoint is not an effort to silence it, it’s an effort to argue against it. When students protested the “Kanye Western”-themed party last year, the fundamental belief behind it was that they didn’t agree with the underlying racism purveying the Greek life space. Or when students’ criticism overshadowed a fellow student’s claim that transgender people are mentally ill, that was simply a numbers game, where an overwhelming majority decrying an ignorant and flippantly blockheaded statement is heard louder than those haphazardly defending it.
Of course, if those protests or expressions of speech erupt into attempts to hold the doors of a venue shut or snatch a microphone away from the speaker, that’s a different matter for which Napolitano’s rhetoric is applicable. However, there are few high-profile cases of these instances taking place at the UC campuses.
That said, the very act of argumentation hails the contested statement as one to be considered in the dialogue. Students don’t have to hear chapter and verse and have a viewpoint shoved down their throats just to be educated on the opposition, and they have every right to oppose the administration bringing a confrontational speaker to campus. Sure, they miss out on an interesting talk, but you shouldn’t be forced to eat cow dung over pasta in the name of life experiences – likewise with confrontational viewpoints.
So yes, Napolitano, colleges and universities need to be havens for freedom of speech, not freedom from speech. But, painting all students’ criticisms and protests of controversial speech as their attempts at finding small corners and cuddling into “safe spaces” couldn’t be further from the truth – such demonstrations can be, and often are, the very contest of viewpoints the college space is meant to elicit.
To think otherwise is to denigrate the very institution you run. And considering the UC is the “largest and best public research university in the country,” it might be time to reconsider your viewpoint. Consider this your trigger warning.