By actively promoting free speech, the University of Chicago is setting an example that other educational institutions should follow

I have to admit, when I first learned that Steve Bannon had been invited to speak at the University of Chicago, my first reaction was along the lines of, “What?  Why?  What are students going to learn from him if he talks about his racist views on campus?”

Then I thought about U. of C.’s long tradition of promoting free speech and not endorsing safe spaces, a trend that many other institutions are moving away from.  The university is right to encourage the voicing of different perspectives.  Administrators at the prestigious school do not claim to support Bannon’s controversial, often misguided views.  Their goal is to uphold free speech, a tenet that is a cornerstone of our country’s values and one we too often take for granted.

Opening your mind to a differing opinion does not mean you have to agree with it.  Understanding an opposing perspective gives you the opportunity to examine your own values and perhaps re-evaluate them.  It also helps you get a clearer grasp of why you believe what you believe so you can intelligently articulate where you stand on various issues.  Ultimately, knowing both sides of a debate promotes healthy dialogue that helps us expand our minds and lessens the likelihood that we’ll be blindly indoctrinated to believe something without critically analyzing it for ourselves.

If we ban opposing viewpoints on college campuses, how much will we become desensitized to the idea of discouraging open dialogue anywhere? If we discourage adults– and college students are grown-ups after all– from hearing about views that might offend them– we’re standing in direct opposition to one of the most important liberties guaranteed to us by the Constitution.

Where do we draw the line?  If we get used to shutting down free speech on college campuses, then it’s only a matter of time before we begin squelching it in other ways that begin to intrude on our everyday lives, from banning classroom discussions to censoring books newspapers, and other forms of media that do not align with popular opinion.

Sound far-fetched?  Take a look at any totalitarian government, past and present, and you’ll see these and other human rights violations were and are standard fare.  That kind of drastic change doesn’t necessarily happen overnight.  Freedoms can be eroded slowly, so we should be mindful to preserve them.

The U. of C. incident reminds me of an event that occurred during my sophomore year at Northwestern when a white supremacist by the name of Matt Hale began distributing racist-themed pamphlets to students and indicated that he might make a visit to speak on campus.  The university did not invite him to do so, nor would they have given him permission to spread his message on campus had he formally contacted administrators about his decision.  Northwestern acknowledged though, that if he occupied public property adjacent to the campus, it did not have the authority to stop him.

In the weeks before Hale’s expected visit, students rallied around preventing his racist message from taking hold.  Some of my suite-mates in the dorm did some research and put together flyers entitled, “Ways to Combat Hate.”  People began participating in earnest, constructive conversations about how we tend to stratify ourselves based on race and class, and how we can begin to bridge those gaps.  We were united in our determination to send the message that we did not support Matt Hale.

I’m not saying what Hale did was right, but some good came out of the whole affair in that students were empowered to take a stand for what was right. Just as he exercised his right to free speech, we exercised ours by letting him know we were not on the same page. Though he probably didn’t realize it, that was a message he desperately needed to hear.

We should not become too easily offended when we hear something we don’t like. We can disagree with people like Steve Bannon and Matt Hale without taking their misguided messages personally. If we become too easily offended, we respond out of raw emotion instead of thinking about concrete steps we can take to show our opposition. If we’re not careful, we can sabotage the very freedoms we claim to support. If we shut down all opposing views, we’re saying the same freedoms don’t apply to all.   What then, gives us the right to speak up?

That said, we have responsibilities that go with our freedoms.  We need to engage in dialogue respectfully.  We need to weigh our words carefully.

I don’t agree with Steve Bannon’s racist leanings, but knowing where he’s coming from can help me understand it so I can explain why I don’t support him.  Protesters have the right to show him they’re not behind him.  It works both ways.  Free speech means that both sides can have their say, and hopefully, we’ll all learn something.



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