I am afraid that I have some seriously bad news. Free speech is a choice and an admirable one but not one without consequences. Why? Simply put, one has to choose between being inoffensive and thus producing a safe space for all including even the most easily offended, or to truly stand for the preservation of the value of free speech.
Free speech is often conflated with the related legal concept that merely protects the right of a speaker from being prosecuted by the government. Even there, however, there are certain things that even the government does not protect, and I will cover those later on. However, the right to not be prosecuted is a severely narrow definition. Indeed, the legal term of free speech is an abstraction that is built upon the far wider idea of allowing people to speak their mind and to enjoy freedom of thought. Private platforms like Facebook and Twitter do indeed have the legal right to remove things they find objectionable but that is not a justification in itself. Although many users of such platforms often resort to declaring free speech to only be the narrow legal concept outlined above, it is nevertheless concerning that increasingly large corporations exercise their power in order to remove content and thought that they dislike.
The act of removal of content from such platforms is widespread and is growing ever more common. Most recently, there was a mass purge of Twitter accounts of various personalities that were right-leaning. Rather than eradicating such controversial thought, it in fact forces such speech underground – where it is more difficult to find, and where ideas grow ever more extreme. This concept is known colloquially as an echo chamber, and more formally as group polarization. What this means is that when people are forced into ever smaller groups of likeminded people, those likeminded people tend not towards moderation, but rather towards extremity.
Despite this, the decisions to remove content perceived by some to be objectionable by Twitter and the like are understandable. Free platforms such as these are driven by ad revenue, an industry I know well having worked in it for the better part of a decade. Advertisers rather naturally do not want their sponsored content and messages to appear alongside controversial messaging. Given this, large content platforms are under constant pressure to police their platforms and to boot creators who do not fit into ad standards off their platforms.
With that said, a university is not quite in the same position as a content platform. Rather than these, they have traditionally generated the plurality of their income off the members of their own community – viz. from past and present students. In this case, they would presumably have more freedom to allow more controversial speech. However, this has not been the trend of the past couple of decades. Instead of being the places for important discourse among dissenting opinions, a crucially important thing for young adults beginning to formulate worldviews, they are increasingly biased institutions enforcing a liberal groupthink. Universities rather than being the place for heated debate and contentious discussions are instead safe spaces that coddle their members into believing in a false worldview which is monolithically liberal.
The debate then is whether a university chooses to create discourse and foster debate where ideas from both sides of the political spectrum can be actively challenged, or whether the university wants to create an environment which is a safe space, inclusive and welcoming to even the most fragile egos. Free speech is a dangerous thing, indeed, because in its essence it means that no matter how controversial or offensive a thought may be, it shall be allowed. One can coddle people from feeling offended or insulted and prepare to stand for the value of free speech but if one does that, that’s all that supposed adherence is – make-believe, pretend. Of course, there are certain limits to free speech that need to be held for the sake of physical not intellectual safety. Specifically, if one threatens to subject others to physical harm and proceeds to show preparation to carry such acts out, those people need to be stopped. However, this is a very small subsection of all speech and the line is currently drawn far from this place.
As it stands right now, despite the supposed prioritization of free thought and free speech, there are far too many things that are not allowed to be said in fears of causing others to feel uncomfortable. Just to name a few examples would be the act of “misgendering” someone, calling out the incessantly expanding list of genders and sexualities as ridiculous, and so forth. Protecting only the speech that is politically correct and deemed to be uncontroversial is not a real commitment to free speech.
So, what exactly is the proposed solution? Rather than prioritizing the feelings of groups of people that are perceived to have delicate sensibilities that they cannot handle any sorts of criticism – allow people to speak their mind – no matter what they have to say. If an actionable threat is made, follow-up on it, but unless acted upon, even that should not be a crime. It is thoroughly insulting to the very people that one ostensibly protects by limiting free speech to hold that these groups – homosexuals, transgendered individuals, other minorities – have such delicate sensibilities and are so vulnerable that they would not be able to handle someone speaking their mind. If somebody is offended, then so be it.
A commitment to free speech must go beyond simply supporting speech that is commonly liked and appreciated. Such a commitment must encompass the objectionable, the provocative, and the downright offensive and hateful, in order to be meaningful.
Speech that is objectionable might be that way for good reason but according to Hall "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." A stringent adherence to the value of free speech is a decision that will be attacked extensively from many groups that wish to shut down all dissenting voices. It is instrumentally vital that in the face of such objections, one does not back down and stands resolutely in favor of their commitment to the declared value.
This is so because any sort of wavering or bending inevitably leads to increasingly limited speech; if one bends and disallows one thing to be discussed, those who are opposed to the value of free speech are sure to keep pushing further. By wavering one opens themselves up to ceaseless attacks both for hypocrisy from pro-free-speech activist and for anti-progressivism from the other side. Nay, the position must be either absolutely for the value of free speech, or else risk making a meaningless statement – one that would be seen as simple virtue signaling and empty posturing. Pretending to stand for free speech and yet banning some forms of it will be rightfully seen as hollow and as such, would be subject to even greater criticism than if the university failed to declare support for the value whatsoever.
Now how could such a value be enforced when it's sure to be met with attack? One must admit that certain groups view any sort of criticisms as direct attacks and as such will doubtlessly attempt to object and eliminate this institutional commitment if it were to be adopted.
The answer for upholding it resolutely is relatively simple. Attacks on the value should be met seriously and an adherence to the idea must be held even under the strongest objections. Adhering to something that is universally accepted and praised is not something meaningful, but on the other hand, it is principled and admirable to adhere to something even in the face of adversity and derision. It is easy to make a declaration that one supports something; much harder to actually uphold that commitment when under fire.
I am not so naïve to believe that I think that the decision to uphold free speech at the university will be met with universal praise. Such a decision will be attacked. It will be controversial. But what is right is often controversial, and the controversy surrounding something does not make it wrong.
The right to freely speak one’s mind, I maintain, is more important than the right of another to not be offended. However, this is a choice that is ultimately up to the university. One must choose between the two, and any point between the two fails both sides. In closing, dedication to the value of free speech requires sacrifice. That is why it's so important.