Greta H, Junior
Free speech is, by law, the first rule of being American. However, with the rise of political correctness and constant debate between who is right and wrong, could 2018 be the end of free expression?
Due to the controversial community meeting presentation at the beginning of the year, Northwest has been in discussion regarding the consequences of a presenter who does not represent the values of our community. There were many different reactions to Katie Meyler’s talk about her organization in Liberia, which focused on education for girls. Many felt uncomfortable with the way Meyler chose to present her achievements, and some argued that this speaker was not aware of the ‘white savior complex.’ This term relates to the common archetype of white people solving the problems of people of color. This can translate into a racialized moral hierarchy, and the idea that those who identify as white are the only people who have the ability, and therefore responsibility, to save non-white people. On top of the presentation’s content being slightly inappropriate for our younger middle school audience, it was clear our community had many issues with this particular meeting. While it’s important to continue this specific conversation on Meyler and the assembly, this incident relates to a much larger discussion that is currently happening in the educational community on a national scale.
Over the past couple years, months, and weeks, the debate on ‘free speech’ in universities has manifested into online arguments, in depth analyses, and even public demonstrations. Similar to our own experience here at Northwest, this dispute over what constitutes as free speech began reaching a national audience with several questionable presenters at different schools. These include individuals like Richard Spencer, a white nationalist leader who made an appearance at Texas A&M University in hopes of advertising his racist, discriminatory, and harmful message. As one might expect, this speech caused a large uproar in the university community, and the majority of audience members were there in protest rather than support. In the end, it was discovered that Spencer had been invited by an individual student rather than a committee or club, and the university enacted a new policy that required all speakers to be sponsored by pre-existing groups.
While the clearest solution to issues like this would be an administration-controlled filter on presenters, the concept of a non-democratic, authority enforced rule of the expression and spread of beliefs is in direct violation of free speech. Because presenters and invited guests are advertisements of a group’s or individual’s beliefs, they fall under the rules and expectation of the first amendment. However, examples like Richard Spencer show the concerning and potentially harmful consequences that can stem from this freedom. Spencer’s presentation was clearly a demonstration of hate speech, with the sole purpose of spreading discriminatory messages about race and racial biases. That being said, he was still invited to the campus, and technically had the right to speak. This ‘doubled edged sword’ is exactly why the issue of oppressed free expression has become a focal point in universities across the nation. How should these institutions, created for the purpose of exchanging ideas and debating important issues, maintain both a physically and mentally safe campus and image?
As it turns out, there have been several suggestions for how to handle this issue. The most popular proposition, originating from a paper done at the University of Chicago, provides a fair but sometimes problematic solution. This ‘Chicago Statement’ declares that no member of the university, student or administration, can reject, ‘obstruct or interfere,’ with the free expression of another (including presenters) no matter how offended they may be. Instead, these students should use this difference of views to spark debate, conversation, and insight, things that are all keystones in the foundation and core of universities and education.
Although this seems like a just resolution, many people cannot cope with the idea of initially allowing these offensive speakers onto a campus. While it is unfortunate that some may have to stand by through disagreeable demonstrations, it is virtually impossible to standardize what people choose to be offended by. The list is infinite and, therefore, there is no reasonable way to create a truly fair measurement of belief. This is in no way meant to invalidate the reactions of those who feel oppressed, discriminated against, or harassed, but it seems that more than ever, it has become hard to agree on ideas when almost everything offends somebody in some way. While I would personally object to certain groups and figures coming into my community, educators must create a standard that is fair to both sides of the spectrum (no matter how condemned).
I believe the standard set by the Chicago Statement is the most reasonable and attainable ‘middle group’ in this debate, as the conversations that could potentially arise from such debates are the purpose of education. The only way we will ever progress as a country and society is by being exposed to these differing views, and exploring the ways in which we agree, disagree, and aspects we can strive to change.