Guest column Samuel Shaffery: Why free speech won the day at UMass

Published: 5/22/2019 6:30:24 PM

Over the last few years in the United States, we have seen an increase in acts of violence against marginalized Americans. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other brands of hate represent a scourge on American society.

Abroad, in places like Hungary, Poland and Turkey, we have seen a wave of tyrannical strongmen challenge the liberal world order and undermine democratic principles, not necessarily by force, but by appealing to the prejudices of their people.

It is in times of political and social unrest that many well-meaning people seek to censor speech that they find offensive. However, it is in such times that we as a society must never take for granted that our country guarantees to us the broadest protections for individual freedom of expression found anywhere in the civilized world.

The freedom from government sanctioned expression may reasonably be considered the most vital of individual freedoms for the maintenance of a free society.

Earlier this month, the University of Massachusetts Amherst was faced with an issue that nearly every American college has confronted at some point in the recent past — whether to allow a speaker to present on campus despite community opposition. In this case, the speakers were Linda Sarsour, Roger Waters and other activists who were invited to speak in the University’s Fine Arts Center about tensions between Israel and Palestine. The speakers were invited to the campus by the school’s Department of Communication, the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as well as the school’s Resistance Studies Initiative program.

When the event was announced, 80 organizations signed a letter to the chancellor of UMass Amherst asking that the event be canceled or moved, and three students filed a lawsuit against the school arguing that the speakers are anti-Semitic and that their presence violates the school’s policies against hate speech on campus. Suffolk Superior Court Judge Robert Ullmann denied the request for an injunction.

The purpose of this column is not to endorse what the speakers said, but rather to express why I believe the court’s decision was the right one. Censorship by any arm of the state must be stopped if we are to preserve a democratic society. Public institutions are legally bound to uphold the principles of the First Amendment.

The principal of content neutrality holds that any regulations on speech made by a public institution must not be based on the content of that speech. The university cannot cancel an event based on the speaker’s point of view.

The principles of free expression are firmly established in court precedent. Brandenburg v Ohio, National Socialist Party v Skokie, West Virginia v Barnette and dozens of other cases establish that content neutrality must be central if any government action regulating speech is to be upheld.

UMass complied with its constitutional obligation to uphold freedom of speech. The court agreed.

We have observed in our country through bitter experience that it is not the popular and generally accepted opinions that are subject to suppression and censorship. Rather, government censorship has been turned toward communists, Nazis, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups generally disliked and marginalized by the American public. It was not long ago that Jehovah’s Witnesses were jailed for exercising their faith and communists were arrested or blacklisted for mere advocacy of their ideas.

It is not for the Nazis or the Witnesses or the Israelis or the Palestinians that we must preserve free expression; it is for the continued existence of liberal democracy. Free speech is about the right to dissent from ideas with which we disagree. Around the world the right of legitimate dissent is being lost as strongmen consolidate power, and here in America, our president has levied unprecedented attacks against the free press and every independent institution that attempts to challenge his agenda.

We must maintain the principle that all ideas can be met with an intellectual challenge. We must do this even if it is painful, in order to ensure the divergent ideas of tomorrow and the next day — the ideas that will challenge the very fabric of our society.

We must be constantly vigilant not to chip away at our liberties in favor of a temporary solution to speech that is irritating or even speech that hurts us deeply. Given all we see around us in the world today, one thing has become abundantly clear: if democracy is to fall in our lifetime, it will not be from a military coup, but rather from the voluntary concession of our rights in exchange for a fleeting impression of comfort and security.

The writer is a Hampshire College student of constitutional law and environmental studies.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy