What should a commitment to free speech on campus entail?

This essay is a contribution to an essay competition launched by The Economist. You can find more info here.

Last September, a website promoting the concept of students reaching out to get themselves a so-called “sugar daddy” promoted itself around the campus of the Free University of Brussels, in Belgium. The ad, printed on a large billboard dragged by a transporter, read “Improve your lifestyle: go out with a sugar daddy”. Unsurprisingly, the advertisement caused a debate on campus, with student union calling for a ban on what they described as a call to engage in prostitution and an exploitation of low-income students. The authorities in Brussels agreed with those student representatives and banned any type of advertising from this company around the university campus. Presumably, female students did not have the necessary willpower to make up their own minds about logging into a website, and the mere sight of an ad was going to make them jump on the opportunity. One wonders what this means for the numerous ads for beer and liquor that can be found around the premises of the university. Aren’t those calling for alcohol abuse as well?

The anecdote is less part of the debate around the commitment for free speech on campus than it is an extension of what a broken debate on free speech results in. Safe spaces and trigger warning, as practiced on campuses in the United States and the United Kingdom, are an export to the continent, and they are just as damaging to free expression. The general tendency to silence unpopular means of free expressionWhat are we supposed to deduct from the ban on the ads of this company? It seems as if the implication is that every idea expressed will find its automatic followers, and is therefore dangerous in itself. In an opinion article for the Belgian newspaper La Libre I pointed out that if an ad for a website was upsetting students, then the real world would be a real shocker to them. As a consequence, I was called a macho, a sexist and an advocate of prostitution online. And still, I can live with the free exchange of ideas more than I could with the fact that I were completely silenced. Because that, to me, seems to be where we are heading.

A month later, the liberal student group on my campus attempted to organise a round table discussion about the legalisation of marijuana with the representatives of all parties in Belgium. The radical left student union opposed the invitation of the Parti populaire (People’s Party), a eurosceptic conservative party, which also happened to be the only one that was radically against the legalisation. The student groups threatened to disrupt the event, for instance by blocking the entrance for the audience. As the university considered it a security threat, the event had to be cancelled.

Once again, the reasoning behind the silencing of people with views that are considered controversial was the same one than for the advertisement: if people can hear the argument, then we will risk that students might agree with them. Through this logic, free expression is not a human right, but a threat to the narrative of the radical ideologues who want to use force against those who think differently.

The counter-arguments include the fact that a number of people hold views that are deeply offensive to others. Yes, free expression means that there are things that you will be offended by. There will be a myriad of situation were you will feel unease and discomfort because of what someone else says. But consider that while you might be offended by the speech of those who oppose abortion or those who think there should be less immigration, that there are simultaneously people who are just as offended as you are by two men kissing in public or women wearing something revealing. Many people are deeply offended by blasphemy, or by criticising the head of their state. They believe that their offence also creates the possibility for them to infringe on the rights of the individual.

I get offended as well. I’m offended by the fact that students on my campus believe its appropriate to wear a t-shirt featuring Che Guevara, or openly advocate for authoritarian collectivism. I believe it’s offensive to people who suffered under those regimes, and it shows a great amount of ignorance of the terrible deeds committed in the 20th century, and of those which are ongoing. Just as much as I believe that people should be offended if people glorified the Vichy regime, or the atrocities that took place in Nazi Germany. But me being offended does not allow me to silence those whom I disagree with, even if I believe that their views are abhorrent. What are my alternatives anyway? Am I to believe that my ideological opponent will change his or her mind because limit the ability to freely express yourself as a student on campus? In fact, I believe I would make these views even more attractive off campus, because now I attached a sense of forbiddenness and edginess to the cause, which pushes terrible ideas to the Reddits, Tumblrs, Twitters and 4Chans of the world, where they prosper even more.

I would like a commitment to freedom of expression on campus that entails the ability to have a free market of ideas. Individuals should be free to express themselves in whatever way they see fit, as long as they don’t harm someone else in the process. Free expressions includes civil discussion, but also obscene jokes and loud protests on public grounds. As Europeans we have a larger sense of decency in public discourse that our American counterparts do not have to the same degree, but even if this freedom means being shouted at, or people being impolite online: letting off steam is fine, and I’d much rather be yelled and cursed at, than live in a society in which my neighbour is not able to speak his or her mind.

If university aspires to prepare young people to the challenges of real life responsibilities, then it must practice free exchange as much as it will be practiced elsewhere. Campuses should be the bastions of free expression, not its worst enemy. That it how it should be.

About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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