This battle for freedom of speech is being played out mostly on college campuses. Recently, left-leaning students have, at times successfully, pressured private and public universities to disinvite right-wing speakers who they feel spread messages of hate. This is where the free speech conversation gets murky. While the First Amendment does not guarantee access to property simply because it is owned or controlled by the government, it does protect the rights of students and public universities who invite speakers who may deliver hateful or divisive messages, as well as the rights of the speakers themselves. Part of the problem is that these battles are often waged after a very small contingent has invited a speaker rather than allowing the full student body to democratically weigh in on whether a speaker should be invited.
Campuses of government-funded public universities are indeed public spaces, but not in the same way as public parks or street corners, and there can exist context that limits absolute freedom of speech when dealing with them. Colleges are institutions of higher learning, not town squares, and the faculty has a responsibility to provide the students with the best education possible. Campuses have always been a stew of ideas, a soupy mess, as they should be. The business of evolving into a more compassionate versions of ourselves is going to have many bumps along the road. From microaggressions to the #MeToo movement, our society is experiencing growing pains, and that’s good. For far too long, those who benefit the most from systems of patriarchy and white supremacy have dictated for oppressed people what they may be offended by.
Youth have always been ahead of the curve on issues of principle and oppression. From the French Revolution to the anti-war protests of the 1960s, history has taught us that college students who oppose the right-wing politics that often lead to rises in fascism have traditionally been on the right side of history. The people most offended by the use, or at times overuse, of phrases like microagressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces are often straight white males who never experience the kind of oppression and degradation of being that would lead to people to explore new ways of dealing with it. Telling someone how to deal with something you are not the target of is a glaring example of abusing your privilege.
As a show-business performer, I understand and relate to critiques that comedians like Chris Rock have made about the difficulties of performing for college students who’ve been made overly sensitive by a politically correct culture. However, I also do not hold comedians to the same rigorous standards of message and conduct as I would journalists, politicians, or scientists. If college students, while trying to be inclusive, compassionate, and less bigoted, getting it wrong every once and a while is enough of a problem for you to write a think piece about it, you’re exhibiting an incredible amount of privilege. College is not meant to be show business; it is meant to be an incubator for ideas.
Safe spaces are often necessary for victims of abuse, and just like anything designed to protect victims, the concept of safe spaces can be abused as well. That doesn’t mean we should abandon the concept or make fun of people who may actually need them. Apologists for fascists point to the liberal ACLU stance on absolute freedom of speech, no matter the consequence. I believe the ACLU is correct in principle but not in practice. The real-world application of principal does not always yield the correct results, because when it comes to oppression, intention doesn’t matter—results do. It’s strictly white privilege to say that what Nazis and the KKK say is not violent just because they say it politely while dressed in khakis. Nazis and the KKK hide behind freedom of speech to advocate for the removal and extermination of people of color and anyone else they do not like.
Freedom of speech by itself is not the foundation of anti-fascism; anti-fascism is the foundation of anti-fascism. If you are using your freedom of speech to support, defend, and apologize fascists, rather than use it to actively resist fascists, you are helping fascism. Fascism is anti-human, and fascists, like those who support pedophilia, should always face consequences. Milo Yiannopoulos was given many platforms until he expressed support for pedophilia, because every one of us has been a child. Not every one of us feels threatened by fascism, and we all should. As a man who places morality above the legal system, I cannot hide behind the First Amendment for my argument. People of color have always had our freedom of speech suppressed in America; this is not new to us. We haven’t been able to depend on the government to protect our freedoms, and we have had to protect ourselves from the government itself. Slavery legally coexisted with the First Amendment for more than 100 years. Cry me a river.
The heads of the alt-right movement, which rose to power courtesy of the Trump administration and is more than comfortable aligning with white supremacist ideas, have successfully weaponized the concept of free speech against those who also use free speech to tell them that their ideas are shit.
Self-proclaimed free speech martyrs like Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Richard Spencer openly state that they want to destroy liberalism, globalism, and the idea that diversity is a good thing. When people hate diversity, Nazis are born. When people see those who oppose them as less than human, they have no problem taking a human life to make a point. It not a coincidence that hate crimes against Muslims and Jews have risen dramatically since Trump took office.
White supremacists who harass anti-racist and anti-fascist activists online behind anonymous accounts are followers of a wide array of these “free speech” advocates. The use their precious anonymity and claims of having their free speech oppressed to write terribly bigoted things and to support terribly bigoted ideas. They often confuse social media with an open marketplace of ideas, as if social media were the internet itself. They don’t seem to understand that they agreed to terms of service before signing on to sites like Twitter and Facebook, and that these terms of service say they can be suspended for many different forms of bigotry or harassment. Social media networks are private companies that make you obey the rules of the house and reserve the right to kick you out when you break those rules. Your Twitter account does not fall under the protection of the First Amendment. Remember, conservatives, corporations are people too.
Freedom of speech in America simply means the government cannot arrest you for what you say. This I agree with. This doesn’t mean I must tolerate or listen to what you have to say, and it doesn’t mean that your misinformed opinions must be treated as fact or with respect, either in the flesh or on social media. The First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or protest of your ideas. If what you choose to say or write gets you banned from a community, yelled at, fired from your job, or called mean names, your right to free speech is not being violated. You are just receiving the karmic consequences of using your free speech to advocate for hate. There are places in the world where free speech is truly being suppressed. Your Twitter account is not one of them. Your college campus is not one of them. Use your free speech to show solidarity with those who are actually being oppressed instead.