The University Network

Balancing Free Speech and the Right to Protest On U.S. College Campuses

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice in United States v. Schwimmer (1929)

As we celebrate the birth of the U.S. on July 4, we need to reflect upon where we are as a nation and the state of free speech one of the core pillars of our Constitution. Free speech on college campuses is under attack by free speech gone wrong protests that turn violent. And it is beginning to have a chilling effect, with speech cancellations, due to fear of riots, at Texas Southern University and the University of CaliforniaBerkeley. 

Today, students’ willingness to march for a cause in the U.S. is the strongest it has been since the protests regarding civil rights, the Kent State shooting, and the Vietnam draft of the 1960s. Protests are part of our First Amendment rights, and can shed light on minority opinions, human cruelty, and injustice. However, some believe the justification behind modern protests isn’t as sound as it once was, and that students have become trigger-happy, effectively polarizing college campuses and the larger world outside. Two recent protests support that point of view.

When conservative political scientist and author Charles Murray gave a lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont, protesters made a strong and controversial presence at his speech. When he began to lecture, protesters turned their backs and shouted, so the audience couldn’t hear Murray. He had to be moved to a video studio, so he could finish his lecture. After the speech, Murray left in a car with Allison Stanger, professor of international politics and economics, but they were met by a group of masked protesters, who proceeded to jump on, rock, and throw a “Stop” sign on the car. One protester even pulled Stanger’s hair and injured her neck enough to send her to the hospital.

Likewise, when white nationalist Richard Spencer was scheduled to speak on April 18 at Auburn University, the protest turned to violence before he started his speech. A fight broke out between a Spencer supporter and an anti-fascist protester, which sparked a frenzy. Auburn University presumed that this would occur and tried to cancel the speech, but a federal judge allowed Spencer to exercise his First Amendment rights. Auburn’s presumption and desire to cancel the speech exemplifies the issues with modern protest. We are more polarized than ever.

Destructive protests on college campuses had detrimental consequences in the past. And like most forms of revolt, they often stem from repression. But, students protesting through a theme of violence, destruction, and immediate reaction run the risk of polarization and halting reform. Protest is a powerful and necessary tool, which serves as the civilian’s weapon, but when used thoughtlessly, it only loses value and separates people. Protests must be double-checked as an effective method towards achieving reform. It is imperative for students to be active and fight against social injustices, but violence and non-stop protests are not effective and won’t help students achieve their mission.  

Protests against Murray and Spencer are not the only examples of repercussive protests. In 1970, protests at Ohio University, following the Kent State shooting, resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage, which forced then-University President Claude R. Sowle to announce the school’s early closure. Further protests forced Sowle, who was ultimately a responsive president, to resign in 1974. This instance “investigates the relationship between violence and activism,” said Sam Benezra, historian and expert of 1960-70 protests. “Student activism at Ohio University at times seemed like protest for the sake of protest.”

Common use of protest on college campuses in the 1960-70s is similar to what we see today. Much controversy broke out after students at Emory University in Atlanta protested the right for a conservative student group to write “Trump 2016” with chalk on a campus sidewalk. Protesters deemed it a microaggression.

According to a study conducted by the Knight Foundation, 54 percent of college students “say the climate on campus prevents some from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.” But, free speech is the origin of protest. It is ironic that students are more willing to protest, but not inclined to speak with their neighbor, for fear of offending them. At Emory University, students protested the right to write “Trump 2016” on the ground, but that is an effective limit to the First Amendment. They are using protest, a direct form of free speech, to limit their peers’ speech.

Many of today’s cynics deem modern student protests as unnecessary compared to the protests of the 1960-70s. College-aged men are no longer susceptible to the draft, and many people believe the modern civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, deals with police shootings and doesn’t directly impact students. They stand strong under the idea that students are young and naive. They believe it’s just a phase that young people go through.

Today, students primarily protest human rights matters. They see the country dividing, but fail to recognize that frequent protests lead to division. Protest is used most effectively when peaceful and absolutely necessary. An example of a recent impactful protest was the Women’s March, which was a worldwide protest for human rights. It included millions of people, but the largest congregation of people was in Washington D.C., and the protest was entirely peaceful and resulted in no arrests.

Protests bring people together to fight for a minority cause in a country where we are supposed to value minority opinion. Violent and destructive acts can often be rationalized and can bring light to a disagreement, but radical protests tend to separate rather than solve. Protest is a crucial weapon in the artillery of our First Amendment. Free speech, and the right to protest, serve as the backbone of American liberty. It is thus imperative that we not jeopardize the legitimacy, impact, and meaning of protest by using it violently and unnecessarily.