OPINION: Balancing free speech and civility is possible and necessary ahead of the 2020 election

Jake Dressman


Issue: In an election year with high tensions, free speech is a topic often twisted in various ways by political pundits. Additionally, there is a growing trend on college campuses to create ideological safe spaces.

Our Stance: Free speech is a cornerstone of American philosophy, but it should not be used to spread hate. Nonetheless, creating a “safe space” only hinders college students’ ability to defend their views.


The first and greatest amendment of the U.S. Constitution is what propels democracy forward. In this election year, it is paramount that Americans don’t forget that freely sharing ideas promotes understanding in a time we desperately need to listen to each other.

However, we must also refrain from using our right to free speech as a means to spread hate or impede others from living in safety.

Along with that, a free press is the most powerful tool to maintain democracy. The first thing autocrats do is take control of their nation’s press.

Though the news industry — like any institution — makes mistakes, it also constantly seeks to correct them. So when the president calls the media the enemy of the people, he is tread- ing dangerous waters. Hopefully his animated base can step back and rationally consider their value system when it comes to the First Amendment.

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, college campuses celebrate Student Press Freedom Day. Throughout history, the youth have driven change and progress in this country. But we must also ask ourselves how much we want to change when it comes to free speech.

Do we really want campus “safe spaces,” for example?

Van Jones, a CNN political commentator and leader on criminal justice reform, said there are two kinds of safe spaces. The first kind he fully supports.

Jones said the idea of a physically safe campus where people are protected from sexual harassment, physical abuse or some kind of hate speech is perfectly reasonable.

However, he said the ascending view of ideological safety is a “terrible idea.”

“I don’t want you to be safe ideologically,” Jones said. “I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong.

“You can’t live on a campus where people say stuff that you don’t like? …

You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless but obnoxious and dangerous. I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset and then to learn how to speak back.”

Free speech is all about discussion. How can anyone’s mind be changed if ideas are not openly shared?

It is understandable and even reasonable for people to get angry and upset about opposing viewpoints. These are natural human emotions. But turning to violence or seeking to shut down conversation solves nothing.

For example, Charles Murray, an author whose work about race and intelligence is highly controversial, was invited to speak at Middlebury College in 2017 and was eventually attacked by protestors, which resulted in a concussion for a faculty member who defended him.

Murray has been criticized by numerous scholars, especially by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has labeled him a white nationalist.

The college has invited him back for an event on March 31. Instead of assault and violence, perhaps the students can debate him. This might actually lead to those who hold similar beliefs as Murray to rethink their ideology.

So as the election heats up, think about how you want to interact with your peers and professors. Are you trying to force your ideas upon others? Or are you willing to seek understanding and perhaps even agree on something?

Opinion Editor Jake Dressman can be reached at [email protected].