Perspectives on Failed Free Speech Legislation

On October 25th, Fairooz Adams, Dedman Senator, introduced a resolution to the Student Senate “on expanding viewpoint diversity and free expression.” The legislation was co-sponsored by SMU College Republicans, Young Americans for Freedom, and several student senators, including Adams, who is also President of SMU College Democrats (and a writer for Hilltopics). The vote took place November 15th, shortly after the election and the resulting campus and national turmoil, and the resolution failed to pass, facing what Adams called an “overwhelmingly” oppositional response.

I talked with Adams, as well as Grant Wolf, Chairman of YAF, and José Manuel Santoyo, Hispanic-American Senator, in an effort to gather their thoughts on the legislation and the result of the vote. Here are some highlights from their responses along with some selections from the resolution itself, as well as my ‘final thoughts’ (to appropriate a phrase from Tomi Lahren) on the issue.

The Resolution

The resolution made two main points: it called for SMU “to adopt the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression” and requested “the implementation of a non-obstruction policy for protests.” It asserted that freedom of speech is vital to “the cultivation of mature university graduates capable of critical evaluation of ideas and worldviews,” and that “when everyone thinks alike, there is a danger of groupthink, prejudice, dogmatism, and orthodoxy.”

Notably, the resolution acknowledged that SMU “generally has a good tradition of respecting viewpoint diversity and freedom of speech,” and that exceptions from protection are necessary for speech that “attempts to incite physical harm on others [or threatens] students’ lives, liberties, and property.” It also requested that all members of the faculty include the following statement in course syllabi: “This classroom supports viewpoint diversity and a free exchange of ideas. Differences in political ideology or religious viewpoint between the professor or instructor and the student cannot and should not adversely affect the grade of a student.”

The legislation prominently featured the conviction that students should be able to “express their ideas, perspectives, and opinions freely and without fear of retaliation,” and that “it is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments [about appropriate speech] for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”

Grant Wolf, YAF Chairman:

“We mutually believe that a university, as an institution of higher learning, has an obligation to present students with a robust and diverse palette of ideas and arguments to interact with, consider, and challenge, in order to ascertain truth. This is vital to the development of students able to think critically, make wise and informed decisions, and contribute to a civil democratic society.”

“A distinction must be made between ideas students disagree with and universally objectionable speech such as racial slurs. Too often these are conflated; such conflation is categorically false, intellectually ignorant, and dishonest. This legislation protected the right of students and the University to oppose and apply pressure of social convention against individuals spouting racial slurs and the like. However, it also recognized the need for a clear definition of such speech, else risking the prevention of legitimate speech that simply doesn’t conform to mainstream political or moral thought. Such non-conformity does not in and of itself constitute hate speech.”

“Our nation is a republic for a reason—democracy can easily devolve into mobocracy. Popular sentiment has no right to dictate freedom.”

José Manuel Santoyo, Hispanic-American Senator:

“I cannot speak to whether the resolution was a result of recent events on campus [the racist flyers and other discriminatory happenings], but what I can say is that it was promoted and supported by Young Americans for Freedom. And one of the main arguments used to defend the resolution was [related to] when we tried to defund Rafael Cruz’s speaking fee because of his homophobic slurs. They claim we were trying to take away their freedom of speech. People need to make the distinction between ‘speech’ and ‘hate speech.’ When your speech degrades, insults, or attempts to harm another group, it becomes ‘hate speech.’”

“If your ideas are ‘offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,’ there are policies in place already to handle this situation. If this was truly about ‘robust debate’ with people outside of their groups, these organizations [like YAF and the other co-sponsors] would actually attend ‘Real Talks,’ which are hosted regularly, or multicultural events on campus.”

Fairooz Adams, Dedman Senator:

“The concern stemmed from two places. First, a series of universities across the country have disinvited speakers and cancelled events because speakers had unpopular views. Second, something like that came very close to happening at SMU. Rafael Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz’s father, was nearly disinvited for having made homophobic remarks in the past. YAF Chairman Grant Wolf, President of College Republicans Drew Wicker, and I felt that this is unacceptable and inappropriate. If there is any place on Earth where unpopular ideas are exchanged, it is the university. The purpose of the university is to promote discourse, discussion, debate. Should a university fall short of that then it has forfeited its right to call itself a university and is merely a very expensive, four year long feel good camp.”

“Hate speech should be challenged. It ought to be ridiculed and diminished. My big fear is that allowing those ideas to go unchallenged merely allows them to fester and manifest themselves later on. Censorship has a very poor track record…Bad speech will exist. Sweeping problems under the rug won’t destroy them. Bad ideas must be brought out into the open and destroyed.”

“Identity politics is a bad thing, especially racial identity politics. The alt-right, I suspect, is partially a backlash against regressive leftism. Nations and democracies succeed when there is internal cohesion within a country. When that cohesion doesn’t exist, when people prioritize their small group identities over their larger national identity, that is bad for national unity.”

“SMU does a very good job [protecting free speech]. Even so we must be vigilant and preempt attempts to subvert the freedom of expression. In terms of marginalization, I’m a racial minority and I’ve never felt marginalized here. Honestly, an attitude of colorblindness and assimilation will probably be the best antidote to marginalization.”

My Final Thoughts

Speech, it seems to me, is much more complex, slippery, and multivalent than it appears on its face. It’s easy to blindly get on the free speech bandwagon, taking the First Amendment as one’s sacred gospel; it’s also easy to condemn or censor certain types of speech without properly considering the larger implications of one’s actions.

In this case, it seems worthwhile to start with a question, which will inevitably lead to other questions: what qualifies, and what doesn’t qualify, as ‘speech?’ In the play of discourses, the field of competing speech acts—even in so small and contained an environment as a college campus—is all speech treated equally from the beginning, or is speech from certain people or types of people inherently disadvantaged? Does everyone have equal access to discursive space? Finally, what is the proper role of speech in the first place, and how can we go about creating conditions in which speech might be better deployed in that role?

To be more specific: if a student group protests an event and is deemed ‘obstructive,’ this amounts, in no uncertain terms, to a curtailing of speech. If a group can muster up the support—the resources, the bodies, the mouths, the quantity and quality of speech—to significantly ‘obstruct’ another act of speech, does this not amount to the fair and square rejection, or ‘destruction,’ of that speech? How, exactly, is a person or group of people who disagrees with certain types of speech to counter that speech, if not by methods that might be construed as ‘obstructive?’ Is there, buried somewhere in Student Senate resolution S-103, a fear of being destroyed, of being beaten—or worse, of not being listened to in the first place?

To use the free market ideology so often pronounced by conservative thinkers, shouldn’t speech, and the actors who create that speech, be allowed to simply ‘fight it out,’ without undue restrictions on methodology of protest and counter-protest? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t ‘obstructive?’ I think of the scene, as related in the film Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine, in which friends of Matthew block Westboro Baptist Church demonstrators from the view of Matthew’s funeral procession. Would this ‘obstructive’ speech have been unacceptable, and even demanding of university intervention, had the legislation passed? Why would the anti-faggers have been given priority to that physical and discursive and visual space? Because they were there first?

Who gets to decide what counts as what, who gets to say when enough is enough, how is it permissible to challenge speech we disagree with? Do the rules apply to everyone equally?
Such questions, and their hazy and often disturbing answers, reveal that speech isn’t some neutral, straightforward thing: speech (and its play) is unwieldy, manipulatory, and inflected with power. Speech is a means of creating and maintaining and growing power, and of taking power away from other people. The foremost danger, then, of calls for ‘free speech’ is that they often fail to properly account for underlying discrepancies of power, for definitional ambiguities that conceal fundamental inequities, even in systems where the apparently freest of speech reigns.

Let’s consider hate speech. Hate speech is never “universally objectionable.” There is no such thing as clearly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ speech. Not so long ago, “racial slurs” formed not only an acceptable part of everyday speech; they were also defended (and still are today) as ‘part of our way of life’ or ‘just parts of tradition’ or ‘just talk.’ And though racial slurs have today been embraced by many as “universally objectionable,” speech that is violent to queer people, sexual assault survivors, women who have had abortions, and many other groups has not yet been assimilated into the fold of “universally objectionable” speech. In a word, perception and definition of speech is fluid, and it has taken a long time and a lot of radical activism even to get to a point where using explicit racial slurs is generally frowned upon—and even then only generally. If activists had heeded racist defenses of ‘free speech’ and just played nicely, we might be living in a very different world today.

A central problem here is the refusal of the proponents of this legislation (and many others) to recognize that “free and open debate” about economic policy and the like is very different from debate about structural racism, civil rights for queer people, abortion, sexual assault policy, and more. This is to say nothing of so-called ‘debate’ about the morality or ethical permissibility or even existence of analogous topics: the particularities of racial and ethnic experience, queer desire and gender expression, the complexities of a woman’s choice, the psychology of sexual assault. I’m talking here about bodies, desires, and autonomy, and the sort of scenario in which a speech act levels an attack not on the ideas or beliefs or policy practices of a group but on their social identities, desires, psyches, and bodies. Speech acts that are caught up in spirals of violence, acts that are complicit in the destruction of black and brown bodies, in the self-destruction of trans and queer bodies, in the ostracization faced by sexual assault survivors (and the legislation has the nerve to talk of exceptions for speech that threatens the lives of students…). When faced with such acts, it is hard to respond in a civil or collegial way, and to expect such a response is nothing but absurd.

This is not to say that free speech is bad. On many levels, I can get behind the idea of this legislation. But I cannot get behind a proposal that is so transparently motivated by an ideology of assimilationism, erasure of minority identity, and denial of discriminatory social practices, as well as a clear conservative Christian persecution complex. We need rigorous and robust debate now more than ever, but this was a screen put up by people who have found their views unpopular in an effort to shield themselves from legitimate challenges and to pass their speech off as intellectually sound when it is so evidently not. Consider, also, the fact that the legislation was unneeded: all involved parties freely acknowledged that SMU does a good job of protecting free speech, a notion evidenced by the fact that though there was controversy, Rafael Cruz was funded and allowed to speak on campus, and he would be again. That’s exactly how ‘free speech’ is supposed to work, isn’t it? This campus knows the stakes of speech and is committed to protecting it; we don’t need self-interested legislation that will only serve to hinder the full expression of conflicting speech with anti-obstructionist measures.

My biggest and final problem with the situation is this idea that all debate is good debate, that dissenting speech is automatically to be treated not only with respect, but given first priority in the discursive hierarchy. There is nothing truthful, or honorable, or inherently good in disagreement, no more than there is in agreement. The play of speech (or lack thereof) within a discourse doesn’t determine its worth—its content does. If the goal here is to have robust debate that moves toward the truth, then we should all focus on directing our speech in ways that engender and participate in that debate, not in ones that seek to enshrine our right to say things “without fear of retaliation.”

I mentioned earlier that speech is inflected with power. This goes both ways. Speech, and particularly notions of ‘free speech,’ often run contrary to the truth, and contrary to good. They don’t have to. So please, find a place and a way and the will to speak, and do it loudly, and everywhere you can, and for good.

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