We can both oppose controversial speakers and champion free speech: A student’s perspective

Knight Foundation recently released a report on the state of free speech on college campuses, which found that students have strong support for the First Amendment, though some say diversity and inclusion are more important to a democracy than free speech. Knight commissioned three students to share their own opinions on the findings, including this piece.

As I waited outside of my first lecture class of my sophomore year at Harvard, I received a series of frantic texts from several close friends of mine: “Salma! You’re not going to believe who was just invited to speak on campus.” “Charles Murray is coming to speak here in a week — call me when you see this…”

Charles Murray is an American sociologist who is most well-known for his book “The Bell Curve,” which has been widely criticized by scholars for advancing the idea that black and brown people are genetically intellectually inferior to white and Asian people. For a lot of students living on the margins on our campus, this invitation signaled the legitimization of racist and dangerous ideas.

For the next four days, my friends and I scrambled to create an adequate response. We published an op-ed, organized a peaceful counter rally and recruited faculty to host an event aimed at countering and debunking Murray’s message. Because of the visibility of Harvard’s campus and the attention given to this event in particular, my friends and I have been catapulted into a national debate about free speech on college campuses.

Salma Abdelrahman (right) at a student protest at Harvard College.

All of this is to say I am hardly an objective voice in the debate about free speech on college campuses. I have my own strong opinions on this topic that are rooted in the way I experience the world as a Muslim woman of color. However, my reflections on freedom of speech and the way the discussion around these issues has been framed have become much more nuanced since Murray came to campus in September. Reading Knight Foundation’s report about free expression on college campuses has given me cause to revisit these nuances.

All too often, the discussion about free speech on campus is presented as a series of binaries: You support the invitation of a speaker or you don’t; you believe students should be allowed to protest speakers or you don’t; you think colleges should limit who gets invited to campus or that they shouldn’t. When students are surveyed on their thoughts around each of these topics, their responses are used as proxies to measure whether or not students stand for or against the right to free speech.

This kind of dichotomous framing presents a lot of student activists like myself with a Catch 22 situation. By expressing any public opposition to the invitation of a controversial speaker like Charles Murray, we are painted as standing in opposition to the protection of fundamental constitutional rights. The only way to avoid these criticisms, then, is to remain silent (note the irony), allowing hateful speech to go unchecked and unopposed. That is not an option. So, we play a game in which the basic premise is rigged against us, knowing that our actions will be interpreted as adversarial by those who claim to stand for the protection of speech.

The thing is, the topic of free speech on campus is hardly this black and white. There are ways to oppose the invitation of a controversial speaker without opposing free speech protections. Asking peers to consider the consequences for minority communities of bringing a speaker like Murray to campus, or even to rescind the invitation of a speaker like Murray, is hardly standing in opposition to the protection of First Amendment rights. In fact, it is thanks to free speech protections that minority communities are able to do this advocacy work.

Framing the protection of free speech rights and the promotion of an inclusive and welcoming society as mutually exclusive, and opposed to one another, is a false binary. There are ways to promote a welcoming environment for students from marginalized communities on college campuses that are not based in limiting free speech. At Harvard, I’ve seen policies that promote education around issues like gender, race and class, as well as efforts to decolonize the academy that do more to create an environment where students like me can feel at home than policies that are thought to infringe upon the freedom of expression. By presenting the protection of freedom of speech and the promotion of a welcoming college environment as mutually exclusive, we limit the potential for creative solutions from college administrators and students that do both simultaneously.

I hope, as our discussions around freedom of speech continue, that we are able to reject the dichotomous thinking that limits the work student activists can do to counter hate without being labeled as standing in opposition to fundamental constitutional rights. This kind of framing is a straightjacket on our creativity and stifles our ability to address issues around diversity and inclusion without infringing upon First Amendment rights.

Salma Abdelrahman is a sophomore at Harvard College and a former Knight Foundation intern.

Read the perspectives of other students on the state of free expression on college campuses in our series:

Lianna Farnesi, Florida International University: “Politically Conservative, Socially Silent: A student’s view

Sarah Kenny, University of Virginia: “Is hate speech a fundamental right? Events in Charlottesville shape student’s view