Yesterday, Carleton University student Arün Smith wrote a note on his Facebook page boldly proclaiming “President Runte, I Tore Down That Wall.” In his long tirade, Smith admits that he tore down a free speech wall set up by the Carleton Students For Liberty and gives his reasons for doing so. Now, Carleton is located in Canada, and generally FIRE does not comment on international free speech issues unless they have impact here at home. However, what happened at Carleton is part of a pattern we see so often here in America that we can’t help but draw the parallel.
Students For Liberty is a small-l libertarian organization that engages students on college campuses. One of the activities popular among their chapters is erecting free speech walls—a wall with a blank sheet of paper on which students can write whatever they want. The Carleton group wanted to give students a chance to express themselves freely, something that SFL believes is essential to liberty.
Canada is obviously not bound by our First Amendment or our legal history and has its own laws and traditions when it comes to freedom of speech. FIRE nevertheless has seen more than our fair share of Arün Smiths in America: at Sam Houston State University, where a professor took a box cutter to an SFL free speech wall; at Dartmouth College, where a student ran his car over a pro-life display; and at Northern Kentucky University, where a professor actually thought she had a free speech right to tear down a display because she didn’t agree with its message.
These cases should be surprising, but, in reality, American Arün Smiths are so depressingly common that FIRE President Greg Lukianoff has filled an entire book with them—students and faculty who have been taught that some ideas are acceptable and others should not even be uttered. We call this phenomenon “unlearning liberty,” and Greg’s book is named after it.
To combat the unlearning of liberty, FIRE believes that students should be free to exchange ideas through forums like free speech walls. We hope that Smith’s actions will be condemned for what they are: vandalism and censorship that should not be tolerated in any free society.