Students React to Free Speech Editorial

Back on December 11, 2016, the Vanguard ran the Sunday Commentary: “Shutting Down Those You Disagree With Is Not the Answer” in reaction to the push to shut down the talk of Milo Yiannopoulos that would be coming a month later in January on the UC Davis Campus.

Since that time, I have been asked to lecture on the topic of free speech to students in various courses.

We are publishing three essays written in response to the column by three young women, all international students, in a freshman writing class.

Everyone Has the Right to Speak, yet the Context Matters

By Phung Chieu Quan

The fact that UC Davis College Republicans wanted to invite Milo Yiannopoulos, who is famous for racist and sexist expression, to speak on campus has paved a path for two different streams of ideas. One side is against Milo Yiannopoulos, and students from this side protested and successfully stopped Yiannopoulos from coming to UC Davis. The other side argues that Yiannopoulos should have been allowed to speak on campus. In “Sunday Commentary: Shutting Down Those You Disagree With Is Not the Answer,” (The Davis Vanguard, Dec. 11, 2016) free speech advocate David Greenwald claims that offensive speakers, like Milo Yiannopoulos, have the right and should receive permission to speak. Although Greenwald is correct that everyone possesses the legal right to speak, he has neglected the difficulty that occurs when free speech becomes bigoted speech.

In his editorial, Greenwald states that everyone deserves the right to speak on a public university campus. His philosophy relies not only on the constitutional First Amendment but also on his belief that suppressing speech does not work. Greenwald believes that Milo Yiannopoulos wants attention, and by shutting him down, people are giving him what he wants and making his voice louder. The author suggests that the remedy should be to give him the permission to speak and either overlook him or make a counter argument instead of attempting to stop him. Greenwald also says that people should question the purpose and reasons why the College Republicans invited Yiannopoulos instead.

I agree with Greenwald that everyone constitutionally has the right to speak. The First Amendment states that the Congress must not do anything on “abridging freedom of speech,” which implies that the First Amendment protects everyone’s right to speak, even on a college campus. Thus, there should not be any limit due to subjective reasons, such as the words that oppose our preconceptions.  One of my friends often conveys that he believes males are better than females and males should be in charge. Although I do not agree with his judgment, I do not shut him down because I respect his right to express it. It is a personal opinion which resulted from his individual background and experience, so whether it is true or not, it deserves to be expressed. Moreover, listening to him, I have a chance to correct him and give him lots of examples of women such as J. K. Rowling and Michelle Obama who show their power and influence all over the world. Although he continues to stubbornly hold to his opinion, I believe that the more people correct him, the more aware he will become. We can listen to what we want, yet we cannot limit other’s privilege to talk based on our own beliefs. Suppressing the speech we disagree with does not make it go away. The speech we try to bury will grow stronger and louder if it cannot be unfettered. The same concept was expressed by a statement our Interim Chancellor, Ralph J. Hexter, made: He was disappointed because he wanted the students to allow Yiannopoulos to speak so that they could correct him. In “Statement on Event Cancellation,” (UC Davis News and Media Relation, Jan. 13, 2017), Hexter expresses his conviction that our community is based on the standard of respect for all points of view, even those we individually see as offensive. In a public university, it is important that all voices, even the offensive ones, are allowed to be heard and recognized because by doing so, we expand our perspectives from all different directions.

The university is a place for people to sharpen or challenge their opinions, not a place to cultivate prejudices. My science friends sometimes say that people who major in arts and humanities are not smart. By saying it out loud, they have a chance to listen to explanation and arguments from the art students. Some remain in their position; some change their idea. Rather than just stubbornly concluding that the art students are absolutely not smart, letting the science and art students speak helps them to think more deeply about their reasoning and reconsider their arguments. In “Colleges Have No Right to Limit Students’ Free Speech” (Time, Oct. 13, 2016), Cliff Maloney, Jr. argues that colleges are places where people can discuss and debate in order to learn more about themselves and to form or reform their ideas. Thus, the speech we find repellent may or may not benefit us, yet it is still worth being given a chance. Therefore, I advocate for the right everyone has to speak.

Although I agree with Greenwald that the freedom of speech belongs to everyone, I feel his answer to hate speech may be inadequate. I cannot accept his conclusion that allowing and ignoring insulting speech on campus, like that propagated by Yiannopoulos, is the solution. In “Balancing the First Amendment vs. Racist Chants at the University of Oklahoma,” (The Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2015) Noah Feldman presents the example that saying “Women are unqualified for this job” in an ordinary workplace is not protected speech while saying the same thing outside of the workplace is protected as an opinion. The same argument goes with Yiannopoulos: Whether he has the right to speak depends on the context. Yiannopoulos may say what he wishes in public, yet his right is not protected on campus because he would create a hostile educational environment, which would violate the UC Davis’ Principles of Community. After listening to him, some students who have not been exposed enough to the world might think that he was right. This could result in the spread of hate on campus. Unfortunately, when we create a platform for Yiannopoulos, we also may promote the discrimination that follows.

Greenwald’s suggestion that hate speech just be ignored is also unfortunate because ignoring insulting speech can become a way to support it. Martin Luther King once said, “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” His idea is that we have to feel sincere regret not only about the words and actions of the evil but also about the silence from the good, because by ignoring and being silent, the good people are unwittingly supporting the bad things. The same argument applies to the case of Yiannopoulos: If we ignore him as Greenwald suggested, we implicitly approve his statements. If we are strongly against his ideas, we have to be bold and plainly show him our beliefs. Silence is a way to make his supporters assume that we do not have anything to argue back and that they are right. Thus, “allowing and ignoring” Yiannopoulos, as Greenwald suggested, is not a solution.

Everyone has the right to speak, yet whether his or her right is protected by laws depends on the context. Greenwald is correct when emphasizing that everyone possesses the right to speak, yet he overlooks the fact that the context is also important. We cannot always draw a clear line on speech because words exist between thoughts and actions, yet understanding our rights and the context helps us make a better choice about how to deal with an offensive speaker, like Yiannopoulos.

Phung Chieu Quan is a student from Vietnam, majoring in Chemical Engineering at University of California, Davis.

Rethinking Free Speech at the University

by Xinge Zhang

Free speech–a term that is used when people are pursuing academic freedom–is protected by the First Amendment and its supporters. However, should the same rule be applied to immature students on a college campus? In “Sunday Commentary: Shutting down Those You Disagree with Is Not the Answer” (Vanguard, December 11, 2016), David Greenwald strongly advocates for pure free speech everywhere including on campus. However, I must disagree with him. Schools are unique places and should be treated differently from society. We need at least some speech restrictions to ensure a peaceful environment so that students can study and perform. This means that extremists like Milo Yiannopoulos should not appear on campus.

David Greenwald states in his article that it is not fair to disfranchise anyone’s right to speech, including extremists. To deal with hateful speech, we should not prohibit them because fighting for the alternative voice’s right to speak is the real test of free speech. The best response to purposely malicious characters is allowing them to speak but ignoring them. The second best is fighting back. The worst idea is to try to silence them because it only makes them more famous. Extremists like Milo Yiannopoulos, who advocate racist, sexist, and Islamophobic ideas, like attention. When we ban them from speaking, we will fall into their trap. They successfully upset people, and in this way, they attract more attention. Protesting is not going to hurt them but make them stronger. For example, the prohibition from Twitter on Yiannopoulos did not stop him but increased the amount of his supporters. In this case, rather than Yiannopoulos, College Republicans should be the ones being questioned if the intentionally hateful advocacy is what they stand for.

The purpose of a school is to educate young people, not to let speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos spread hate. According to Noah Feldman in “Balancing the First Amendment vs. Racist Chants at the University of Okalahoma” (The Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2015), when two fraternity members at University of Oklahoma led a horrifying racist chant, it was right to expel them because they threatened university safety. The university is meant to be a place where all kinds of ideas mix together and students can study and argue, but this requires some restrictions. Milo Yiannopoulos’s speech is similar to that of the fraternity members. His behaviors violate the real mission of the university because he creates a negative study atmosphere on campus. Although maybe people like him are protected by the First Amendment in public, they should not be forgiven in a university setting. There should be a line distinguishing free speech and hate speech–if the speech is targeting marginalized groups and encourages discrimination on campus or not. Milo Yiannopoulos’s behavior clearly crosses this line. For a peaceful study environment for students to perform, hate speakers should definitely be banned.

Greenwald thinks we don’t need any restrictions and that the best way to fight hate speech is by just ignoring the speakers. Admittedly, ignoring helps diminish the possibility that extremists will be seen by the public. However, Greenwald neglects to consider how hard it can be for victims to remain silent. It is unrealistic for people to just be quiet when they are offended. From my personal experience as an international student, I am not able to stay calm even when small “microagreesions” happen. For example, many American acquaintances have stereotyped me and my home country, China. A lot of them say that my family must be so rich to send me abroad to study, implying that I live my life easily. I understand they mean no harm, but I still feel uncomfortable every time I hear such words. I will definitely explain to them that my purpose here is to study and become a better person, and I really do not have any kind of privilege, but to the contrary, I even have more trouble than native students because I live in a strange country alone. These “microagressions” even make me feel uncomfortable psychologically; how are those truly marginalized students going to react when purposely hateful speech stirs up them? Of course they are not able to stay calm! I feel that the reason why Greenwald may be so calm is that he is a white male, and so he has never belonged to a targeted marginalized group.

In conclusion, although Greenwald’s position seems appealing, it is not completely practical. No matter how people react, extremists will still crave fame and take action to catch everyone’s attention. In order to create a peaceful campus environment in which to study and learn, we should have some restrictions on free speech. This is not opposing free speech; instead, restrictions provide a better environment for free speech, which should include no hateful words. With those boundaries, students will have a better idea of how they should behave and will learn from each other. After they graduate and start working, they will have had enough practice to behave like mature adults, who know how to express themselves appropriately.

Xinge Zhang is a sophomore at UC Davis majoring in Mathematics.  She is from China.

We Need Proper Limitations On Free Speech

by Jiayu Fang

A few weeks ago, Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech was cancelled on the UC Davis campus because of students protesting. Everyone was shouting and criticizing Milo Yiannopoulos’ racist and sexist opinions. While some students were yelling that they had the right to protest, their opponents said Yiannopoulos also had the right to speak because of the freedom of speech. Even though the arguments were heated and everyone, including local journalist David Greenwald, was discussing what to do, there was no black or white solution to this topic. For me, I agree theoretically with Greenwald that everyone has the right of free speech, but feel that he overlooks the consequences of some free speech for victims and the impracticality of absolute free speech.

In “Shutting Down Those You Disagree With Is Not the Answer” (Vanguard, December 10,2016), David Greenwald, a free speech purist, states that everyone – even extremists like Milo Yiannopoulos – has the rights to say whatever they want even if their ideas are not accepted by the majority. Greenwald believes in absolute free speech because he thinks the more people suppress negative ideas, the more these ideas grow potentially. Therefore, people like Milo Yiannopoulos will only become more popular and draw more attention after a protest. In this case, even though Greenwald does not agree with Milo Yiannopoulos’ political opinions at all, he still believes that Yiannopoulos has the right to speak his mind, and the audience also can simply choose not to listen to his speech. Greenwald thinks that the best strategy is to ignore the voice of Yiannopoulos and by doing so it will diminish his power to influence people.

I agree with Greenwald that people should be able to say whatever they want, but only in a moderated environment. In “A different Kind of Safe Space” (Chronicle of Higher Education, August 30, 2016), Ted Gup promotes the same absolute free speech idea as Greenwald does, but his scenario is based on a small classroom setting where everyone is educated to control their arguments. In Gup’s classroom, students can say whatever they want, but ignorant or prejudicial statements will always be confronted and corrected by other students, so that it gives everyone more opportunities to think about severe issues and discuss them intellectually. To follow the same principle, Milo YIannopoulos should be allowed to speak, but he should also have to take the consequences of his speech, even including protests that he may not be happy with. Greenwald doesn’t seem to consider this. If the speakers have the right to say anything, also the opponents should have a way to argue back. But political topics – not like every-day-classroom problem—are more serious and severe. Ensuring fair discussion is less practical in the larger social environment of the college campus than in a smaller classroom setting.

I also disagree with Greenwald’s suggestion that victims can just ignore or intellectually fight back against hateful speech. Oftentimes, the victims cannot ignore the mean words and have little ability to join the conversation or fight back at all. If people like me cannot even argue back against every-day microaggressions, how can we expect them to be tough enough to fight back someone who has fame and power, like the notorious Milo Yiannopoulos. Every time I go to the food truck at the Silo, the cashier says “Xie Xie,” which means “thank you” in Chinese, to me. I am trying so hard to blend in in this country, but he reminds me everyday that I am a foreigner. Even though I understand that he does not mean any harm, the fact is that I feel offended and uncomfortable. Sadly, I do not feel able to ask him to stop singling me out. If small offenses cannot even be confronted, how much harder it is to speak back against serious racism. Maybe it is possible for Greenwald to argue back, but definitely not the majority of people, not me. So his solution is not practical.

While Greenwald is concerned about the right of free speech, he ignores the right of victims who do not want to live in a hostile environment. The reason why people do not want Milo Yiannopoulos to talk may not be fully because of what he says, but more because the aftermath of his speech can be physically harmful to people. In “The Limits of Free Speech” (The Atlantic, March 13, 2015) Kent Greenfield says that even though people have the right to say anything to others, hateful words can turn into crime. People who say attacking words might actually carry out an assault, so the victims are rightly afraid of them. In order to solve this problem, some universities have come up with safe spaces for students to talk about sensitive topics and vent their anger properly. This solution effectively decreases the range of controversy and anger on campus, so it effectively decreases the chance of creating a hostile environment. Both speakers and opponents can say whatever they want and have a rational conversation within a smaller group under protection and supervision. Creating a non-hostile environment can not only let students have a friendly academic experience, but also teach then how the think and argue back intellectually and objectively.

Free speech has always been a hot topic on college campuses. Even though it seems so abstract and far away from us, it connects to our lives tightly because we are living in a society full of different opinions, some of which we disagree with. I don’t fully reject the right of free speech, but I definitely think we need some restrictions on it. The overgrowth of free speech can cause a hostile environment and jeopardize students’ academic environment and make them perform poorly. Everyone should have certain limits and controls on what they say to create a healthier and friendlier learning environment for every student.

Jiayu Fang is an international student from China, majoring in Animal Science at UC Davis.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Sharla C.

    I really don’t understand the confusion here.  We have people standing on the Quad daily telling the students that they are all going to hell, yet no one complains about being a victim of their hateful speech.  In fact, I’ve seen students turn it into a sport to engage these people.

    People don’t get to decide what others can or cannot listen to.  It would have been better to let Milo talk.  It was only after he appeared on national TV with a panel of smart, educated people that people could see the shallowness of his bits and his utter worthlessness as a political pundit.  His fame and popularity grew with every protest and cancellation of his speaking engagements.  It took a 16 year old Canadian who actually listened to what he had to say, recorded the dialogue, and posted it on social media for all to see and hear to bring him down.

  2. Chuck Rairdan

    Seems the same basic questions apply and aren’t resolved by these student responses: who decides what is hate speech or otherwise acceptable or proper? These are all very subjective standards, even when applied on a mass scale based on cultural norms, local sensibilities, etc. There is also a fair amount of labeling and projection going on regarding the characterizations of Milo imo. So you don’t like him–got it. Perhaps some personal fortitude is in order here for those so easily offended. And while you are busy pursuing the noble heights of a university education, please try to understand that the fundamental right of free speech is not something to be applied at your whim or discretion.

  3. Alan Miller

    All three of these papers read like exactly what they are:  Freshman college essays.  All three essays are also frighteningly similar in their basic philosophy, as if they were all told how to think.  Also disturbing is the celebration of victim-hood in all three essays – like it’s a valid life coping skill to blame others and take it, because the others are the ones with the problem due to their ‘privilege’ or ‘ignorance’.  College is supposed to prepare one for the real world.  That’s just judgement. This sort of belief system will dump one into the real world, unprepared.  Unless this actually becomes the real world, heaven help us.

    1. David Greenwald

      So one of the interesting things are the students is a lot of them were from countries where there is no such thing as free speech.  Something to consider.

      1. Howard P

        Well, those two countries actually greatly espouse free speech… as long as the speech parrots the “party line”.  If not, it’s defined as seditious or worse…

        There are other problems with their facts and logic, but will not address those, as they may be an ESL thing.

        1. David Greenwald

          That’s the point of my lecture to them – even the most tyrannical country allows speech that agrees with the regime. I think quote Oliver Wendell Holmes’ real test of speech – supporting speech that you despise and that is where Milo comes in. But it’s a hard concept apparently

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