American conservatives use the protection of free speech frequently in their defense of dangerous opinions.
This statement should not be as controversial as it appears in political discourse, and yet it is a defining aspect of arguments nationwide. Nowhere is this anger felt more than on college campuses, where conservative groups are frequently the vocal minority.
This week, fulfilling a promise he made on March 2, President Donald Trump will sign an executive order forcing college campuses to certify they protect free speech on their campuses or risk losing federal research finding.
The story Trump cited in a speech to conservative activists was the case of Hayden Williams, who was punched in the face while recruiting for the right wing group Turning Point USA. The group has rightfully been accused of spreading half truths and false information in the past to forward their heavily conservative platform, bordering on alt-right.
As a disclaimer, violence should not have been the answer to Williams’ recruiting. But using the guise of free speech as a way to enforce a policy like this is simply wrong.
Let’s take a closer look at Hayden Williams’ case and others like it to see why freedom of speech is not the same as freedom to be stupid.
To spread the good word of Turning Point USA, Williams had set up two signs on a walk path on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. The first said, “Hate Crime Hoaxes Hurt Real Victims,” in reference to the case of Jussie Smollett, and the second said, “This Is MAGA Country.”
The first sign is an excellent example of a dangerous half truth frequently promoted by this organization. Yes, it is true that fake attacks like Smollett’s can create a precedent that less cases will be taken seriously if there is a history of falsification, however, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of hate crimes are already not taken seriously. Victims should be believed until proven otherwise, and rhetoric like this suggests there is a legitimate reason to not believe the victims of hate crimes. Smollett’s case should be taken as an oddity and not as the rallying cry of a conservative group.
The second sign is self explanatory. Trump supporters have used the MAGA warcry as a quick and easy way to be aggressive toward anyone who doesn’t believe in the same policies they do. The basis of the saying “Make America Great Again” is racist because of all of the policies and rhetoric with which the president has surrounded it. That phrase cannot be dissociated from the inhumane treatment of immigrant families at the southern border. It cannot be dissociated from calling all Mexicans rapists, drug dealers and less than human.
Anyone going to a college campus, or any public space for that matter, with a sign as blatant as Williams’ is looking to make trouble just based on the content of the message.
Conservative groups loved Trump’s speech on March 2 because they want more freedom to promote messages like Williams’. They fear they will be unable to have a safe space on liberal-leaning locations like college campuses.
And to that, I say, too bad. The right to freedom of speech in the First Amendment does not guarantee a freedom of consequences. As I said previously, the man who assaulted Williams deserves punishment equal to his crimes, because assault should not be the answer to aggression.
This does not mean colleges and universities should take the fall. They should be able to enforce their policies without worrying about losing funding. That means being able to say “no” to people who they believe will make their campus a less safe place.