Opinion: In the debate over free speech, choose empathy

Posted on Sep 12 2017 - 8:00am by Daniel Payne

Which is worse: hateful speech or censorship? This question is likely to resurface once again in the heated discussion of what to do with the Confederate monuments in our own community.

On one side, college campuses are considered safe spaces for free speech and expression, where it may otherwise be unacceptable. The fire and brimstone preachers, who will undoubtedly return to campus at some point this year, are a great example of this principle in action. No matter how unpopular or offensive their ideas are to some, they have the right to express them freely on our campus.

The same principle applies to those who use their voices to argue against those preachers. Whenever these hateful ideas come to campus, students are free to denounce them and call them out for what they are.

This is the model of free speech at work – a free market of ideas where consumers can decide what is useful and what isn’t.

How does this theory work in the real world, though? I think the events at the University of California, Berkeley last winter are a good case study for this question. Considered the birthplace of the free speech movement, Berkeley students once fought for their university to allow a broader spectrum of political ideas. The 1960s movement became the blueprint for campuses becoming more accepting of diverse ideas nationwide.

Today at Berkeley, some students see things differently.

Conservative speakers were invited to campus last year, and students used their right of free speech to protest; they didn’t want these ideas to have a platform in their university.

This was not just about politics, though. These students saw what some speakers said and stood for and ultimately determined it to be hate speech. Misogyny, racism and homophobia, they determined, had no place on their campus.

Their point was clear: Words can hurt, and our current ideas of free speech don’t always address that fact.

Some words, like those spoken by the preachers that visit campus, have very real consequences. In a national study, 40 percent of transgender adults reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25; LGBT youth attempt suicide four times more than their straight peers, on average.

This is a result of hate speech in our culture, even that by the preachers on campus or the planned speakers at Berkeley. It’s the hate speech that isn’t technically considered hate speech but has the same effects: destruction and violence.

This is not, however, a wholesale endorsement of the Berkeley protests. Some protesters resorted to violence and destruction of their own campus.

Our current understanding of free speech doesn’t account for our human emotions or the tendency for those emotions to get out of control.

This article is not an argument against free speech on college campuses. It’s free speech that allows me to write this column.

Instead, it is an acknowledgment that there are no easy answers when it comes to these issues. I fear we will be too quick to choose sides in this debate to remember one principle that keeps free speech as a useful, valuable part of American society: empathy.

Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should say it. Considering how others may perceive your words or actions will not only make them more effective but make the world (and our campus) a kinder place.

Daniel Payne is a sophomore integrated marketing communications major from Collierville, Tennessee.