Even if you’re not interested in free speech, free speech is interested in you

By July 3, 2018

For as long as I can remember, my dinner table has been an intellectual battle ground embroiled in controversy. My father, a conservative small business owner from New York City, was constantly engaged in ideological warfare with my mother, a liberal leaning lawyer from a small town in Wisconsin. Though they jockeyed to gain my allegiance to their opposing political camps, I ended up committing the ultimate act of treachery — becoming an independent. While my parents bemoaned their inability to win me over, I secretly felt as if I had been given an immense gift. I was fortunate that my formative years were spent in an intellectual environment that encouraged and at times even demanded dissent. This diverse conversational upbringing had the effect of making me an ardent believer in the power of free speech and discussion as a promoter of tolerance and inclusion.

So it is no surprise that I eagerly anticipated my arrival to college. I had fantastical dreams of campus life where open dialogue and expression could lead to new levels of understanding and consensus-building in my university community. However, by the end of my first semester at the University of Pennsylvania, the vibrant intellectual environment that I had envisioned to be a certainty on college campuses was replaced with a much bleaker reality.

I noticed almost immediately that Penn’s cultural environment was not conducive to robust discourse. My eagerness to debate relevant issues with those who had different backgrounds from my own was greeted with a sort of resigned disinterest. For example, when I attempted to engage my conservative hallmate in a discussion on welfare, he merely sighed, muttered that he was “not in the mood to get yelled at,” and shut the door. Even more wary were my liberal classmates who were downright hostile when I offered even slightly differing viewpoints on subjects like LGBTQ rights or sexual assault on campus. My inability to show wholesale agreement on these issues was met with outrage at my lack of sensitivity or empathy. I was startled. Since when did a desire to discuss contentious ideas equate to moral ineptitude?

Penn, even with its “green light” free speech rating from FIRE and its highly publicized Committee on Open Expression, is dangerously averse to using free speech as an instrument for change on campus. Instead, students at Penn exist in like-minded groups and social circles created by a highly selective pre-professional club culture that practically mandates ideological division on campus. As a result of this polarized environment, most students at Penn consider free speech to be something that is antithetical to respect, progress, and inclusion, if they are considering free speech at all. However, free speech is not the enemy, nor is it ever unimportant. Rather, it is the medium that enables social change and profoundly affects each student on Penn’s campus, whether they realize it or not. Here lies the most significant distinction: It is necessary to have stringent constitutional protections for free speech not merely to protect abhorrent ideas, but also to ensure that students have the ability to use their voices to fight against opinions that they loathe.

In order to create this culture of robust dialogue on Penn’s campus, students must learn two significant free speech lessons. First, that the goal of protecting free speech on campus is not to promote tolerance of intolerance. As University of Pennsylvania professor Sigal Ben-Porath distinguishes in her book “Free Speech on Campus,” campuses should be promoting “dignitary safety,” not “intellectual safety.” Ben-Porath explains, “Dignitary safety is the sense of being an equal member of the community and of being invited to contribute to a discussion as a valued participant.” She further asserts that harsh treatment of oppressed groups silences just as much as censorship, but by rejecting “intellectual safety” or “the attachment to one’s unquestioned beliefs,” universities remain committed to inquiry and open discussion.

Second, as Professor Ben-Porath so expertly put it, “Even if you’re not interested in free speech, free speech is interested in you.” In a campus environment where a seemingly harmless joke, offhand comment, or impassioned protest has the ability to offend or result in punishment, students must fully understand their free speech rights, so they can be aware when they are violated. While many students assume that it is the activists and rabble rousers who have their rights infringed upon by school administrations, abuses can occur in even the most innocuous of instances.

If these lessons are understood and implemented by Penn’s student body, the campus culture may finally embody the vision of free speech that is set forth in Penn’s codified policies. Perhaps Penn students will begin to realize that the very purpose of college is to have the type of conversations that infuriate, enlighten, humor, and reform even our most ardent beliefs. That Penn would satisfy the eager child who could not wait to sit down at the family dinner table so that she could be told that she was wrong.

Caitlin Quinn is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.