Shouting people down is not the same as free speech

I have watched it play out on campus after campus this past year. And it has begun to creep into off-campus protests and events as well including local government meetings and civic events. Somewhere along the way, we have confused shouting people down with free speech. When it is rather the opposite. It is suppression. I am specifically talking about the idea that free speech means being allowed to stand in someone’s face and scream at them or disrupt and shut down an event.

Let me set a ground rule before I start. I don’t believe all ideas are equally valid. I don’t even think all ideas are worth giving air time to or listening too. However, all people, have a right to their own ideas. They have a right to gather together and discuss their ideas with like minded people. And to a certain extent, the government should not be involved in suppressing those rights. In fact, this is the very thing the has built progressive America into what it is today. I have an even bigger concern when the legislatures start weighing in with free speech bills and legislation that are clearly punitive to one side or idea.

The majority of the context I am speaking about is with higher education. Let me begin by telling you a secret. [whispers] There are conservative students, faculty, and staff in higher education. And that’s okay.¬†A certain vocal minority within the left has convinced themselves that higher education, particularly large, public, liberal arts colleges, are bubbles of pure untouched left wing thinkers whose only limitation is the moderately left leaning administration.

Then when some small conservative group (or any group with an idea they find questionable) gets together – regardless of cause – they immediately want to hound them, suppress them, shout them down, and drive them from campus. This is not freedom of speech nor the free exchange of ideas. This is mob mentality, intimidation, and suppression. This is not what we claim our institutions value.

Three years ago, at my nearby college, the largest campus religious group invited a nationally known anti-GLBT speaker. The speaker is a strong advocate of being able to “pray the gay away”. Almost no one noticed. This year, that same group, has noticeably limited their advertisements about who they are inviting and has actually started employing security for their meetings. The largest. campus. religious. group.

This sort of “majority rules” “mob-intimidation mentality” that forces people to think and act like the majority wants them to act is dangerous – be it left, right, up, or down. And the truth is that it isn’t really a majority. It is another minority (for now). But it is a minority to whom the largely left-of-center campus is sympathetic. And as such, few seem to perceive the danger in this and many are willing to tolerate it. Though few are around to actually watch when dozens of shouting people surround one or two lone people and scream them down. The intimidation and fear is real and intentional. But afterwards and beforehand, the crowd wants to label it “free speech.”

I worry about this as the military has previously been a target of visceral free speech. The Martin Niem√∂ller statement of “First they came for the socialists….” sticks in my head. So now, me, a social liberal, religious progressive, and social justice advocate, has to say we’re going too far. (Maybe it’s not “too far,” maybe it is just the wrong direction?)

I was proud of our local college when they did not let an invited speaker get suppressed by those who proudly boasted of their intent to disrupt the event and shut it down. Even though some students, faculty, and locals made it cost a fortune and made it get ugly. Yes, I found myself being proud that we let a conservative speaker with some ideas that resound of racism and bias come speak. That part hurts I admit. I’m not proud that we invited him but I’m proud that our students who invited him were able to hear him. I was not proud that some in our community’s plan to protest it was to shut it down. Too often the majority has ruled by intimidation and suppression. We can’t allow this to be the way our emerging progressive majority acts if want to claim to be inclusive.