Free Speech Essay Contest winners: Luke Sorensen, third place

February 7, 2018

Over the course of this week, FIRE will be featuring the winning essays from our 2017–2018 Free Speech Essay Contest. Third-place winner Luke Sorensen attends Marana High School in Tucson, Arizona. His essay is below.

Ānjìng. Be Quiet.

Restlessly fidgeting in my leather seat, I fix my gaze upon the stream of buildings that rush by my window. Ancient pagodas, drum towers, and centuries-old fortresses pass by, juxtaposed by modern skyscrapers, casinos, and towering hotels. We stop, and as I step out of the car, I realize that we are in the heart of Beijing: Tiananmen Square. Looking around, I think about the massacre that unfolded here several years ago, on June 5th, 1989. The crushing of protests, the murdering of civilians, and the silencing of voices. I ask my travel guide what he remembers of the incident.

“Ānjìng,” my guide says. “Be quiet. You can’t speak of such things. You never know who is listening.”

With these statements, I come to understand that the expression of opinions is a volatile idea. In China, freedom of speech has been abolished. The Tiananmen Square Massacre never occurred. If one were to look for the event on Baidu, China’s leading search engine, results yield only tourist information of the square. The truth was swept under the rug, hidden, yet still silently present in the memories of the Chinese. In the United States, however, we retain the fundamental right to free speech, and should continue to fight for it so long as we believe in the ideals of a truly free society. Here, opinions propagate freely, present in the minds and mouths of the American people.

At many college campuses, however, the right to free speech is under threat. Take for example Williams College, a nationally ranked liberal arts college home to the student organization “Uncomfortable Learning.” Uncomfortable Learning, led by student Zach Wood, is a group dedicated to creating conversations about topics that are designed to push students beyond their comfort zones. The organization invites controversial individuals to speak, posing ideas that challenge students to consider notions that are not their own. By considering these ideas, students gain deeper understandings of differing opinions. This does not necessarily mean that a student’s views will change, as beliefs will often only become more grounded after understanding an opposing stance. Rather, it is about having discussions to become more aware of the many perspectives upon this earth.

However, by disinviting speaker John Derbyshire due to his reputation as a white supremacist, Williams College dissolves any chance for a discussion about Derbyshire’s views. Yet, these discussions play a critical role in a student’s learning. The purpose of college is to educate its students. This education does not solely refer to the curriculum taught in the classroom but also applies to ideas presented in the real world. However controversial, new and contentious ideas cause students to think critically about the issues at hand, often more so than what a typical classroom might offer. Rather than solely knowing what white supremacy is, Derbyshire would provide a way for students to understand why people believe in it and how that belief influences one’s thoughts. Through this consideration, his audience grows both as students and intellectual minds, more equipped to understand others.

Some argue that the views posed by Derbyshire stepped beyond the realm of uncomfortable and became conducive of a threatening, instigative learning environment. To this view, I argue that limiting free speech is no solution. The opinions expressed by Derbyshire, however divisive they may be, still exist throughout society. In silencing his voice, one only muffles a man expressing views that are already present. All this does is create a population ignorant of opinions that continue to drive the actions of individuals around them. In the context of Williams College, white supremacy still lives on, however, due the censorship of Derbyshire, students will simply be less educated of his opinions and of how those views influence the actions of others.

If a college truly desires to create an environment ripe to develop its students’ minds, free speech must be one of its defining characteristics. College is a place of learning and of growth. It is where students not only find their future careers but also their future selves. They develop their own goals, aspirations, and opinions. Without an abundance of ideas to draw from, however, students become limited in their scope of personal growth. A legion of like-minded individuals is produced, undermining the beauty and benefit of diversity in ideas, personalities, and thoughts that our constantly changing world demands.

Through the censorship of opposing ideas, institutions innately make one voice—the voice that is socially acceptable—the only voice that can be heard. However, we do not learn from hearing what we already believe. We learn by being challenged to consider novel ideas that are different from our own, from the norm, and from what is comfortable. No ideological group, regardless of how unpleasant, derogatory, or offensive their beliefs may be, should be marginalized to silence. Rather, the diversity of opinions should be a welcomed aspect of a college education. Only then can a student truly be free to learn.