Almost a year ago, the removal of a lawn sign from a student criticizing the university motivated me to write an article to defend this student’s right to express herself freely. Now, seemingly across the political spectrum, the discourse surrounding former Vice President Mike Pence planned speech at the University – as embodied by this publication recent editorial — has inspired me once again to reaffirm that freedom of expression is absolute and must be vigorously defended. While the former vice president’s positions can be highly objectionable, the use of loosely defined terms such as “violence” and “direct harm” as pretexts for censorship risks stifling legitimate debate solely through disagreement.
To be very clear, I don’t care much for Pence and find many of his beliefs abhorrent. Yet I do not claim that there is or could be an objective standard that justifies the suppression of his speech based on his ideas alone. When the authors of the recent editorial cite Pence’s values as “violent,” it begs the question: when do differences of opinion become harmful? Attempts to distinguish between unacceptable and acceptable expressions have arisen in the past and have failed to produce adequate guidelines. To quote Justice Harlan in Cohen v. California, “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” Here we find a completely similar situation. While support for a “zero tolerance” immigration policy may be seen as racist by many, for others it is a legitimate political proposal. Unfortunately, a similar argument can be extended to Pence’s take on LGBTQ+ issues when discussing various religious beliefs.
The editorial board’s attempt to resolve this conflict is disturbing to say the least. The authors respond to this dilemma with “hateful rhetoric is violent”. Their definition both introduces another subjective term – “hateful” – and completely separates the content of his speech from the context of his speech. Since the authors’ concern is with statements that “directly [threaten] the presence and life” of others, context is everything. Consider the corn merchant example proposed by John Stuart Mill. Blaming a corn merchant for starving the poor carries very different weight when expressed in print or as an angry mob outside the merchant’s house. Although the underlying ideas expressed are the same, this last scenario puts the corn dealer directly at risk of bodily harm. Therefore, expressions cannot be considered harmful solely on the basis of their content. Context is critical in assessing the likelihood of physical violence. As the former Vice-President will deliver his address in a series of lively lectures on a relatively progressive campus, I find it hard to see how the editorial board – in good faith – can claim that lives will be directly threatened by such a presentation.
It must also be recognized that freedom of expression goes in two directions. A person’s ability to say something implies the ability of others to hear what they have to say. By silencing a person’s opinions, the public loses the ability to listen. When speakers are denied the opportunity to lecture on Grounds, interested students are simultaneously denied the opportunity to hear them speak. If, as the Editorial Board suggests, denial of a platform is justifiable for hateful views, we must cede the power to decide what is permitted speech to an outside person or institution. As it is a public university, this institution is the state. Taking into consideration global risks to free speech and the long history of protecting free speech in this country, we should be very skeptical about trusting the state to regulate what we can or cannot hear. As the late essayist Christopher Hitchens, wrote: “I have never met or heard of anyone to whom I would entrust the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or to read.” Nor should it be assumed that the direction censorship takes can be controlled indefinitely. While the editorial board can have peace of mind as things stand, it doesn’t take much imagination to foresee a scenario where that discretion is misused to suppress the very values it stands for. . Once the door of repression is open, it is difficult to close it.
The issue of allowing Mike Pence to speak at the University tests our commitment to free speech and freedom of expression. We cannot let a public university – and by extension, the state – discriminate based on mere beliefs when it comes to determining who may or may not be allowed to make an appearance. Our Founding Fathers did not create the First Amendment to safeguard the consensus of the majority, but to protect those minority opinions deemed so abhorrent and repugnant that they are at constant risk of repression. If our freedoms are to mean anything, they must also extend to those with whom we fundamentally disagree. This is exactly why, in 1978, the ACLU defended the rights of neo-Nazis to assemble. Faced with the prospect of a controversial speaker coming to Grounds, it is essential that we do not rely on overly broad and ambiguous labels to justify removing the floor. Mike Pence must be allowed to speak, not because we agree with him, but because that is what our constitutional freedoms demand.
Max Bresticker is opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at [email protected].
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. The columns represent the opinions of the authors only.