The left has a free-speech problem. As Bryce Wyles’ recent column indicates, there is an increasingly common willingness to strip basic civil liberties in the name of social justice, as well as a troubling lack of understanding of the First Amendment, what it exists to protect and the inherent societal value of free speech. There is deep irony to Wyles’ statement that “people will often assume their freedom of speech means they can deny others’ right to speech … that is simply unconstitutional.” This statement is nonsensical — not only because nowhere on the list of non-first amendment protected speech is anything resembling silencing others, but also because the hateful speech Wyles describes does nothing to prevent anyone from speaking out against it. Most of all, Wyles’ article shows a disturbing disregard for freedom of speech. It indicates a belief that only those who wish to express reasonable — or even only progressive — speech deserve free expression.
The First Amendment protects racist speech, bigoted speech and other hate speech. However, this is not a flaw in our free-speech laws but a deep strength. Like Wyles, I am disgusted by the University’s chapter of the Young America’s Foundation’s hateful actions. However, what makes the First Amendment so powerful is that it does not exist to make me comfortable. It does not exist to protect reasonable opinions, good ideas and productive discourse. It exists to protect the repugnant, the controversial and the provocative. A world without the freedom to say controversial things — even objectively terrible things — is a world without free expression. Without free expression, there can be no civil liberties.
Further, U.Va. is a public university and is thus legally bound to uphold the First Amendment. It both cannot and should not silence any First Amendment protected speech, which ultimately includes all hate speech that does not become harassment, libel or any other non-protected speech act. However, Wyles’ column reveals a greater problem than ignorance about the First Amendment. The complete willingness to disregard basic liberties in the name of social justice is an increasingly common trend in college leftism. Ultimately, this trend will work to the detriment of liberal thought and erode leftist commitment to liberal values.
As a liberal, I am increasingly troubled by the distinctly authoritarian streak in modern leftism. While I wholeheartedly agree with the leftist cause of economic and racial justice, the increasingly authoritarian, anti-free speech rhetoric used by leftists is deeply harmful to the progressive cause. Over the past few years, I have seen words like free speech and liberty become dirty words in liberal spaces — this deeply disturbs me. To abandon a commitment to essential civil liberties — yes, even for those with whom you disagree radically — is to abandon what liberalism fundamentally stands for in favor of destructive dogmatism. I align with the political left because I deeply believe in the value of a free and open society. This is something that can only be gained when all are able to express their beliefs, and where ideological disagreements are solved in the public forum of debate, discourse and protest. When someone says something repugnant, the solution is not to silence them but to use your rights to vocally and intensely disagree.
If an appeal to the inherent value of civil liberties isn’t convincing, then consider a more pragmatic perspective. If your goal is to change minds and hearts, advocating for the censorship of those you dislike isn’t going to change anything. In fact, it makes leftists appear volatile, dogmatic and anything but progressive. Public disagreement gives liberals an opportunity to share their best ideas and to actually present compelling arguments for joining the cause. Censorship is lazy and ultimately ineffective.
I believe in the liberal cause and the importance of leftist activism and advocacy for the kinds of radical change needed in our nation. I, too, am enraged by the kinds of hateful, indisputably racist language groups like YAF deploy. However, for all my disagreement, I could not in good conscience wish for their silencing. Instead, I use my own free expression to state deep disgust at their speech, while remaining deeply committed to their right to say it. Authoritarianism is becoming increasingly popular on both sides of the aisle and to devastating effect. If progressivism is to remain a powerful force, and frankly — to state a deeper fear of mine — if a commitment to liberty is to remain valuable in this nation, leftists must abandon authoritarian sympathies. The freedom of speech is one of the most basic and essential rights given in this country. I, for one, will continue grasping tightly to it.
Emma Camp is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.