Students at colleges across the country are encouraging their peers to exercise their right to free speech by building “free speech walls” on their campuses—displays where students can write or draw whatever they want.
Free speech walls are a great way for students to share ideas in a public way. For example, student group Dorm Room Diplomacy at Binghamton University in New York set up a wall last week that was filled with everything “from animal drawings to political statements,” according to Pipe Dream, the school’s student newspaper. Pipe Dream reported:
Although most of the postings on the wall were respectful and inspirational, there was an instance of “hate speech” when someone wrote, “Zionism is Fascism.”
“Oftentimes, we find that hate speech doesn’t accomplish anything,” [vice president of Dorm Room Diplomacy Jordan] Clifford said. “Free speech is free speech. It’s up to the person how they want to use it.”
It is important to remember that “hate speech” is not among the few narrowly-defined categorical exceptions to First Amendment protection, and has no established legal definition. It’s purely in the eye of the beholder, so it’s a matter of opinion whether “Zionism is Fascism” is indeed hate speech.
It is certainly political commentary, however, and is therefore at the core of what the First Amendment is meant to protect. Clifford is correct when he suggests that the protected status of speech does not depend on its offensiveness or persuasiveness. If nothing else, being exposed to controversial statements serves to spark conversation and debate, reminding us that the First Amendment was not enacted to protect only popular ideas. After all, popular ideas don’t need any protection—they’re popular!
Elsewhere, Kennesaw State University’s The Sentinel reported that the Georgia school’s College Libertarians also set up a free speech wall as part of Constitution Week celebrations. Student group Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) at Marshall University in West Virginia asked students to write on their free speech wall “what is frustrating to them about today’s government.” And earlier this week, the University of Toledo’s YAL chapter followed suit, setting up its own wall on the campus’ Centennial Mall. Chapter president Ron Johns captured the spirit of the First Amendment in commenting on the results: “I don’t agree with fifty percent of the things on the wall, but it’s a constitutional right.”
Did you hold a free speech wall event at your school? We want to know about it! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pictures are welcome!