Correction: This story originally stated that Jonathan Zimmerman was only able to speak for 20 minutes at his lecture on censorship and free speech, which is incorrect. The student protesters spoke for 20 minutes and Zimmerman was able to give the full lecture.
Professor Jonathan Zimmerman from the University of Pennsylvania presented “Censorship and Free Speech on College Campuses in the Age of Trump” this Friday, addressing an incredibly important issue about our nation’s First Amendment rights.
The intended topics of discussion included whether speech should ever be limited, how universities should respond to ideas that are rejected by scholars, whether colleges have an obligation to favor expert research or act as “free speech zones” and how universities should respond to threats facing free speech.
Before Zimmerman could speak, seven Western students exercised their right to speak freely, holding signs reading “Advocating for the right to racist, sexist and transphobic speech is violent,” and “Your safe space is violent.”
Their message: allowing Zimmerman to speak was allowing violent space on campus.
It’s very much these students’ right to protest and speak on something they feel passionate about, but interrupting a discussion and open dialogue on the very issue — the freedom — they were exercising is entirely counterproductive.
Silencing the voices of others contradicts the essence of the First Amendment.
The premise of free speech in America is based on a principle of neutrality. Everyone has the fundamental right to say what they want about any topic, no matter the substance of their argument.
Banning speakers from talking about their views, controversial or not, erodes the freedom of being able to speak openly and engage in important discussions about the world around us.
If anything, free speech on colleges and universities should be valued more than ever as an all-inclusive space for a marketplace of ideas. Attending university is a time of intellectual exploration, not verbally and physically assaulting different views and ideas, as is the case on many campuses across the U.S.
There’s a problem with the suggestion that blocking speech permits “safe spaces” on campus — implying that speech is violence provides justification for violence toward speech.
And that’s a problem if we want to make any progress as a community here at Western and as a nation.
According to a survey conducted by professor John Villasenor of California at Los Angeles and the Brookings Institution, a fifth of undergraduates say it’s acceptable to use physical force to quiet a speaker who says offensive and hurtful things.
Zimmerman said at the lecture, “Friends, trauma is a medical term. You can’t just apply it to anything that offends you or anything that hurts you.”
Even more importantly, it’s not an excuse to act violently toward someone with an opposing view.
While U.S. Congress most likely won’t take action to protect free speech on college campuses, a consensus among lawmakers is that school administrators need to address the issue and take action now.
Western’s attempt to address the issue by inviting Zimmerman to speak on campus was, for the most part, silenced — and that’s not any way to move forward.