The recent terror attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris is yet another example of the fact that there are people who so strongly wish to impose their views on others that they will silence their opponents by any means necessary. By using terror and intimidation tactics, extremists have attempted to scare those who disagree with them into silence, overpowering even the strongest laws protecting free speech.
Perhaps the most troubling part of the Charlie Hebdo attack is its relevance to the modern American college, where the idea of “offense” as the ultimate danger runs deep. This problem prevents students who do not hold mainstream views from participating in discussion on controversial topics for fear of punishment by either their school or by their peer group.
Though students, faculty members, and guest speakers are generally free from violence of this sort on campus, there is no shortage of closed-minded people striving to cut off the voices of those with whom they disagree. This phenomenon is known as the “heckler’s veto,” wherein unpopular opinions are silenced by threats of harassment and bullying from those who oppose such views.
For example, Daniel Mael, a student at Brandeis University, recently found himself under attack after he republished a classmate’s controversial public tweets regarding the execution-style murder of two NYPD officers on a conservative website. Since publishing the article, Mael’s classmates have called for physical violence against him and for his expulsion from Brandeis. Additionally, Mael’s family members, including his parents and grandmother, have been threatened. Mael has been told by campus police that, upon his return to campus after winter break, he should expect his car to be keyed, his dorm room vandalized, and that other students may attempt acts of violence against him.
Similar acts have recently been perpetrated against Omar Mahmood, a student at the University of Michigan who wrote a satirical article about political correctness for the university’s conservative paper, The Michigan Review. After his article was published, Mahmood was fired from his job at Michigan’s institutional campus paper, The Michigan Daily, and his apartment was vandalized: students had thrown eggs at his door and left notes with messages such as “shut the fuck up” and “everyone hates you, you violent prick” as well as a picture of Satan.
In essence, students at Brandeis and Michigan, respectively, tried to suppress their schools’ stated commitment to free speech and punish Mael and Mahmood for their opinions in order to prevent them and others like them from saying or writing things they don’t approve of.
The heckler’s veto is frequently responsible for scaring controversial speakers away from colleges as well. In recent years, loud and disruptive protestors, including both students and faculty members, have prevented speakers invited to campus from effectively sharing their thoughts by interrupting and interfering with their speeches. This was the case at Brown University in 2013, when New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s lecture titled “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City,” was canceled half an hour in after protestors grew so loud that it became impossible for him to continue.
But even more troubling is the fact that many speakers withdrew from giving their lecture at all due to the threat of disruption. For example, Christine Lagarde, the first female leader of the IMF, canceled her commencement address at Smith College last year after a series of anti-IMF demonstrations created a hostile environment at the college in which Lagarde felt unwelcome. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was slated to give the commencement speech at Rutgers University last spring, canceled her lecture in response to student protests criticizing her role in the war in Iraq.
Last year also saw Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California system, back out of his commencement speech at Haverford College after students and professors demonstrated against him. Even Haverford’s president, Daniel H. Weiss, was upset that Birgeneau would not be speaking at Haverford, stating, “we have lost an opportunity to recognize and hear from one of the most consequential leaders in American higher education. Though we may not always agree with those in positions of leadership, I believe that it is essential for us as members of an academic community to reaffirm our shared commitment to the respectful and mindful process by which we seek to learn through inquiry and intellectual engagement.”
As Weiss stated, it is extremely important to note that recognizing controversial public figures’ accomplishments or providing controversial lecturers with a platform to speak does not necessarily condone support for all of their opinions or actions. It benefits students to be exposed to a broad range of perspectives and the people who hold them. In the incidents involving Lagarde, Rice, and Birgeneau, the students chose to censor themselves from ideas they didn’t like, and created enough of a threat to those who held such views to prevent them from speaking their minds on campus.
The use of intimidation to suppress certain opinions has no place in a free society. Protesters should seek to promote an increase in discussion and understanding rather than seeking to prevent the other side from articulating its views. There can be no debate or intellectual curiosity if only “acceptable” arguments are allowed. We can only hope that, even in the face of intimidation tactics, people around the world will not back down in fear and will continue to express their opinions, however controversial, freely. Whether in Paris, Claremont, or anywhere else, free speech is the single most important element of a free society. In order to maintain this freedom, we must stand up for the right to freely express all speech, whether we agree with it or not.