The high price of free speech


By Olivia Booth, Staff Writer

The University of California-Berkeley, designated Sept. 24-27 as “Free Speech Week,” bringing focus to an issue that has generated controversy and violence at colleges around the country this year.

After Berkeley’s cancellation of a Feb. 2017 speech by alt-right political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, President Donald Trump tweeted, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

But can the federal government really take action against colleges for free speech issues on campus?

According to Mason professor Jennifer Victor, “the Supreme Court allows government to restrict speech that may be violence inducing, or ‘fighting words,’ which can be a bit vague.”

“The balance between liberty and security is delicate and often changes based on circumstances and perceived threats,” Victor continued. “The Supreme Court tends to err on the side of freedom, but then again security is not a part of their job.”

As of now, Mason has a green light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). According to FIRE’s website, “‘Green light’ institutions are those colleges and universities whose policies nominally protect free speech.”

Mason students’ views on freedom of speech differ.

Andrew Millin, the Chief-of-Staff for George Mason Democrats, argues that “in instances where speech can incite immediate violence, it is vital to stop it. After all, freedom of speech does not mean you cannot face consequences for that speech.”

Millin also suggests that students should still learn about different worldviews and be able to challenge such views, but in a setting where they are guaranteed safety such as classrooms.

Others believe that schools should celebrate, not condemn, all expression of ideas.

I find it particularly dangerous for schools and colleges to curtail free speech, as the purpose of education is to hear multiple ideas and allow the student to come to their own decision,” said John Kielbowicz, the secretary of George Mason College Republicans.  “College should be a marketplace of ideas, not an echo chamber of one viewpoint.”

The balance between of liberty and security is a complicated issue, and one that will likely remain in the tension between protecting our rights and protecting our citizens from harm.

Virginia House Bill 1401, passed earlier this year, “prohibits public institutions of higher education from abridging the constitutional freedom of any individual […] to speak on campus, except as otherwise permitted by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Photo Courtesy of Mason Creative Services