COUNTERPOINT: Colleges have the obligation to protect speakers’ free speech

Art by Lisa Kim 

Self-identified white nationalist Richard Spencer was invited to speak at the University of Cincinnati on March 14. No, the school did not deny the controversial speaker the right to speak. They did not refuse to give him a venue, a microphone or a platform. They just asked for him to pay $11,000 for security. Spencer found this unreasonable and filed a federal lawsuit on Monday.

Let’s first examine why schools like the University of Cincinnati need security for speakers like Spencer in the first place. Sure, the argument could be made that the inflammatory words of such speakers cause students to protest. And it’s true they have the right to protest —  but take a look at the First Amendment one more time: They have the right to peaceably assemble. Just because several students choose to violently exhibit their disapproval with certain speakers does not mean it should be the speaker’s responsibility to maintain the order. The school ought to control its own students — and write its own checks.   

It’s also important to analyze which speakers generate the need for high-cost security. The vast majority of elite colleges in the United States are liberal. The liberal to conservative professor ratio is 12:1, and younger voters tend to vote Democrat more often than Republican. By nature, the liberal voice is also a much stronger voice than its conservative counterpart. Liberal student activism is significantly more apparent on a variety of issues including economic progressivism, abortion rights, labor rights, environmental justice and so forth. The progressive agenda is more concerned with challenging the status quo, while the conservative one tends to favor the way things have always functioned. Therefore, it is natural for those who want to instigate change to have their voice heard more than it is for those eager to maintain the status quo to have theirs heard.

As such, protests against conservative speakers are much more common. They also have occasionally turned violent. In response to speeches from conservative commentators like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro, we have seen potentially dangerous protests at a number of schools nationwide including UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Claremont McKenna, UC Davis and the University of Washington.

Some argue that no one is responsible for maintaining and defending speakers’ platforms. Hate speech is unprotected. We know this simply isn’t true in a democracy that must allow for even the most extreme of positions to be tested in the marketplace of ideas.

Others contend that the speaker is responsible, but this is an illogical answer. Protecting the rights of those with ideas that are in the minority is a fundamental right in the United States. Imposing security fees on speakers is a covert way of blocking them from speaking. It is a way of letting the majority — albeit sometimes just a very loud and disorderly group — block the minority from presenting its viewpoints publicly.

Lastly, others argue the responsibility of providing spheres for free speech falls on the universities themselves. As institutions of higher education and debate, schools have the obligation to allow speakers of all viewpoints. The responsibility to protect students should fall on them, not their guests.

While it may make sense to advise controversial speakers to bring bodyguards for their own protection, whose responsibility is it to ensure the safety of the students? Who must protect students from potential violence as a result of what should be peaceful protests? The university, of course.

Shauli Bar-On is a freshman majoring in political science. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.

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