The Remedy for Bad Speech Is…

By April 15, 2005

As a nonreligious political liberal who has spent much his career defending religious students and students under the thumb of censorship from the left, I am used to defending protests or expression that I do not agree with. In fact, as I have often quipped, “I almost feel like I am cheating when I defend points of view I agree with.” Whatever I may feel about protests like the affirmative action bake sales, however, I am far more offended by efforts by official power to squelch them. One of the reasons I find the attempts to stop these protests so wrongheaded is that by trying to stop them before they start, administrators underestimate students’ ability to defend themselves in open debate and to answer what they see as bad speech with more speech.

As students at UNC Charlotte demonstrated, students who dislike the affirmative action bake sales are hardly helpless (one-time registration required):

In the center of the UNC Charlotte campus, students hung a sign Tuesday that read: “Before Affirmative Action: White men only.”

Just a few feet away, students who oppose affirmative action pretended to sell cookies and brownies according to the buyer’s race or gender.

Dozens of supporters and opponents of affirmative action staged simultaneous demonstrations at UNCC, stoking emotions on both sides.

I think the students who held their counter-protest had the right idea; rather than suppress speech, take the argument head on. The article goes on to note that “the protests were largely peaceful but sparked insults and several angry shouting matches between white and black students. At least one student could be seen crying, and others were shaken.” While I sympathize with the students who were angered by the affirmative action bake sale, this is
the natural consequence of arguments that “touch the heart of the existing order.” Compassion is an important value, and politeness is admirable under many circumstances, but real freedom without hurt feeling is neither possible nor desirable.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Charlotte