Free Speech on Campus Comes With Responsibility

In the
face of adversity, the responsible use of freedom is a virtue—as well as a
necessity.

America is
a nation born from the idea of freedom. To properly use this blessing and avoid
abusing it, we need the clarity of moral insight. Civil rights require civic
responsibility. But Americans’ fear of losing the freedom to express themselves
has caused them to forget that responsibility.

One of the
great ironies of the past century has been the decline of the American
university. These institutions were designed to stand for the pursuit of truth
and civic enhancement.

Yet today,
campus grounds are the place where free expression is most constantly challenged.
Censorship is not only imposed by administrators. Students themselves are a
source of censorship when as they choose to treat their political opponents
with disdain.

Fear of
the “other side” has fostered a toxic political tribalism.

Thomas
Jefferson once wrote that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” and
Americans have taken the fight for their individual liberties seriously. But
while it is true that freedom must be defended, freedom also loses its credibility
in the eyes of opponents if it is abused.

American
college students are no exception. In their own way, they are determined to
prevent others from stifling their freedom. What they don’t realize is as they
claw for their rights, they are shredding the very foundation those rights
stand on.

When conservative
students host a lecture or activism event, many remain on constant alert for
demonstrators who may silence their speech. This caution is not without merit. Countless
conservative events have been shut down by dissenting voices who can become
violent and physical in an attempt to shut down words they feel are “hateful.”

Both groups understand their rights to be at risk, and their fear of the opposing side chipping their freedom away has caused them to lash out in defense of what is theirs.

Students on the left have a different concern when it comes to rights. They often fight to protect the feelings of individuals who have historically been denied rights by society. It doesn’t matter whether they have reason to fear those individuals losing rights again. In the minds of progressive activists, they are defending the civil liberties of others.

Both groups understand their rights to be at risk, and their fear of the opposing side chipping their freedom away has caused them to lash out in defense of what is theirs.

The right,
when silenced by the left, begins to yell louder. The more words they can say,
the better, as that proves they have the right to say them. Those words,
however, often turn into dangling red meat for their opposition. They holster
the “own the libs” mentality, mocking liberals as snowflakes “triggered” at
everything.

The left
feels their existence and rights are threatened, so they protest, grinding away
on the limits of “peaceful” assembly. And they justify in their minds that storming stages and super-soaking speakers is acceptable: They’re just
defending their rights.

Shouting shameful
things or forming a mob to silence your opponents sullies the intended purpose
of the First Amendment. This amendment protects us from the government
infringing on our rights, but the standard for exercising that right shouldn’t
be merely what we can get away with legally.

A counter-protester holds his ripped sign that was torn by protesters demonstrating against a speech by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro at the University of Utah, Sept. 27, 2017.

We are so
blessed to have the freedom to speak freely and organize ourselves to
demonstrate as we wish without government-mandated muzzles. But what good is
that protection if citizens are silencing each other’s speech or resorting to aggressive
messaging?

When my campus activism chapter hosted Ben Shapiro in 2016, a group of protesters stormed the stage and silenced him for 20 minutes. Those protesters succeeded in silencing our chapter members’ speech. Sure, they weren’t the government telling me to shut up, but they stole my voice.

Shouting shameful things or forming a mob to silence your opponents sullies the intended purpose of the First Amendment.

That being
said, my retaliations for the rest of the semester were a poor reflection on my
character. I resorted to crudely presenting my arguments, something I am not
proud of.

I had a
great gift—the freedom to speak my mind—and was squandering it by treating my enemies
poorly. I ignored their humanity. Yes, they were as offensive and belligerent
as me, but I helped fuel the fire.

Being able
to engage with those we disagree with is important—we are a community of souls
and should treat each other as such. The respect we show our foes reveals the
respect we have for the Bill of Rights.

When we
use our freedom for hostile purposes, we exploit the intention the Founders had
for the First Amendment. Freedom requires responsible use, and the proper use
of freedom optimizes its purpose.

Our
standard for free expression should not be what we can get away with legally.
If we continue down this path, language will continue to be associated with
hatred, and assembly with mob rule.

When we use our freedom for hostile purposes, we exploit the intention the Founders had for the First Amendment.

I fear
those connotations are what will dissolve the freedom of expression.

If either
side truly wants to stop this endless cycle of shouting matches, cancelled
events, and lawsuits, they are going to have to start gaining composure in
difficult situations.

There are
a plethora of different groups popping up on campuses around the country that focus
on fostering kind, multi-partisan discussions between students. While some are
more successful than others, the recent creation of these groups shows there is
an appetite among students to engage civilly with people of other opinions.

When we
face true injustice, or people who seek to erode our rights, we should stand
firm for those rights. But we must do it with respect to the other side, even
if they are not respectful in return.

Americans
have the gift and responsibility of liberty. We must not misuse it.

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