Is Free Speech oppressive?

These past two weeks in higher education have brought back to the forefront (not that the issues have ever gone away—attention waxes and wanes) issues of racism—structural and specific incidents. On numerous campuses there have been incidents and protests and in two cases (at least) resignations of high ranking administrators as a result (at least partially—see for details) of failure to address these issues.

First, let’s be clear: There is no excuse and no rationale and no place for racism. Specific incidents are almost always symptoms of underlying issues, and we do no good by simply addressing the symptoms without also addressing the causes.

As educators, we play an extremely important role in this area. Here at William Paterson, we have not been immune (no one is immune) from specific incidents, and these incidents require that we keep addressing the causes of these incidents.

In many of these cases, at least as reported by publications such as Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education (see as just one example–there are many more), there is the perception or reality of a clash between the principles and practices of freedom of speech and the need to have an environment where all students—especially those from populations that have historically been targets of oppression—are safe.

This is troubling for me.

My area of research is Free Speech—and this is both a personal and professional interest. I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU. And I still research and write about issues of Free Speech.

In my understanding of Free Speech, I see a balance between issues of freedom of expression and the need to create safe places—but this is a very complex balance, and complexity never plays well in media coverage or protest. I also acknowledge that where I see balance, other scholars do not—they see a privileging of free speech (which is generally seen as favoring the dominant and powerful) at the expense of those who do not have the same access to get their messages out and who may perceive or receive attacks when they do speak out.

I respectfully disagree with this viewpoint—but I acknowledge it and consider that there may come a time when that argument is stronger and more compelling. I am also well aware that the aura that surrounds free speech is very much an idea that is strongest in the United States—other countries and other cultures do not have the same laws or customs that are prevalent in the United States.

So where does this leave me (won’t even consider speaking for others on this)? At present, I still find the stronger argument that free speech is something that is essential—and that includes speech that can be considered hateful and even oppressive. That doesn’t mean, at all, that I support hateful and oppressive speech. It means that I have the right (and personally and professionally the obligation) to publicly refute and rebuke and abhor that hateful and oppressive speech—that is free speech. And yes—I am privileged to the extent that I don’t generally have to worry that my expression will encourage attacks on me—I am privileged. But I also still argue that the principle and value of free speech is that it does offer the opportunity for all voices to speak, not just the official and approved voices.

The argument can be made that free speech is a power of the privileged. But should there come a time when restrictions are put in place, those restrictions will come also from the privileged. Restrictions will support the power structure—they will not question it or critique it.

In the end (in the briefness that is a blog), that continues to be why I support free speech. I still see it more as a tool to critique privilege than a means to enforce privilege.

I still hold to the statement made by Justice Jackson in West Virginia v. Barnette:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

This was a case where the state, in all its power and all its coercive ability, was telling elementary school children what they had to do and what they had to say—even if the actions and words violated their religious beliefs, their values, their culture. But because of the principle of free speech, those children were allowed to continue to live by their beliefs.

In the end, this is why I still think that we can balance safety and expression, and more, why I think free speech is essential to safety.