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Five ways to react to speech you don’t like (besides censorship)

By February 24, 2017

Working in the business of free speech can be tough sometimes. I’ve read and heard opinions that have befuddled me, disgusted me, and everything in between.

But even the speech that makes me the angriest and most frustrated is usually protected by the United States Constitution. While it can put me in an intellectual tailspin some days, it is ultimately much more important that I put any personal feelings aside and make sure the broad protections of the First Amendment and the principles of free speech are protected for everyone on college campuses.

Censorship is an easy, albeit counterproductive, solution to a much larger problem. It might seem complicated to counter speech you disagree with, which is why I’m offering some of the tricks I’ve learned while at FIRE. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing speech you disagree with, there are plenty of ways to stay true to yourself and speak your mind.

  1. Write. Whether it’s in your school newspaper, an independent newspaper, or on your personal blog, a great way to make your voice heard is by publishing a piece outlining why you disagree with something that was said or done. You never know who will read your piece, so don’t underestimate the impact it may have. By publishing your thoughts, you have the opportunity to start a conversation on campus, not shut it down.
  2. Organize a protest. When talking to students at conferences and FIRE sponsored events, I always stress how lucky we are as Americans to be able to react to speech we disagree with by spontaneously organizing a protest. Instead of shutting down a speaker or calling for their disinvitation, make some signs and head on out to your school’s quad. Keep in mind FIRE’s FAQ for Student Protests on Campus when you do.
  3. Question and challenge speakers. If you disagree with a campus speaker’s viewpoint, go to the event and ask them some tough questions. Challenge their position publicly. Since I tend to get nervous, I write down any questions in advance so I don’t forget them.
  4. Host a speaker of your own. If you’re not a part of a group on campus that has the ability to host a speaker, collaborate with one that does. Don’t be afraid to pitch an idea to a student group that might be interested in hosting the event and offer to help plan it. By bringing multiple speakers to campus that hold different viewpoints, you have the opportunity to show your campus the complexity of a given topic.
  5.  Get creative! Since each institution is different, try to come up with an idea that is most appropriate and effective for your campus community. Engage in activism with other students in your group, your friends, or even strangers. Bringing people together to support a common cause is a healthy and effective way to counter speech on campus that you disagree with. Check out what students at the University of Texas at Austin did when protesting the concealed carry of firearms on campus, or how students at the University of Pennsylvania responded to an email from an off-campus group addressed to freshman women at the school. Creative ideas can attract attention, and help you broaden the potential audience you can reach.

For more ideas on how to exercise and protect your free speech rights on campus, join the FIRE Student Network.