Recently, I swore off social media. I deleted Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube and Twitter from my phone. With torrents of content to watch, read and digest, I broke down. It seemed like all publishing restraint has been lifted. Though despite inundations of published material, I remind myself that censorship still lurks, and its political implications are very real.
Speaking to a Russian friend recently, he lamented the inertia of his nation’s politics and how censorship renders their press incapable of confronting the issues. Timur Kuashev, a journalist, human rights activist and critic of Putin’s reign, was found dead at 26. “Russians all thought he was an idiot. You don’t just criticize the government and expect to get away with it,” my friend sneered.
Russia may be an extreme example. However, certain blonde-headed American politicians are undoubtedly shifting us towards a political environment that is fully antagonistic towards the press. The United States, a nation forged by incendiary colonial pamphleteers, has long understood the value and upheld the practice of unfettered political speech. However, those that follow the undercurrents in freedom of expression see that the liberal university, supposed champion of free speech, free inquiry and free expression, is failing to do its job, nay, its civic duty.
The college campus is a training ground for politically active, vocal and shrewd citizens. However, the modern college student isn’t being taught that political rhetoric, which transgresses their worldview, is indeed still vital. Co-Founder of FIRE, a free speech advocacy group, Alan Charles Kors, says, “A nation that does not educate in liberty will not long preserve it.” Educators at Colgate should take that to heart.
Here in Hamilton, I witnessed intimidation and bullying by over 700 Facebook users of students who expressed irreverent glee in their presidential candidate winning. I read droning and unpersuasive emails sent to the entire Colgate community claiming to profess universal Colgate values with regard to immigration, a political issue that is far from settled. Controversial coursework in my classes has been abandoned to placate objecting students. Student groups have been dissuaded from inviting polemic political speakers (you know who). Personally, I have received the heckler’s veto during Q&A with campus speakers. And now, most explicitly, a movement by faculty, students and trustees to reaffirm the principles of free expression is at risk of not passing.
These direct acts of explicit and implicit censorship are covered up by a cultural smokescreen. In his book “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” Greg Lukianoff cites a “culture of smug certainty, partisanship, sound bites and überpundits” that is at work in eroding open and honest discourse. Campus censorship is indeed at work, wearing down those who hold views alternative to the politically correct, progressive narrative.
Dare I say it: even words that may be called “hate speech” (not a legally recognized category of speech) have their uses (to let particularly disquieted factions blow off steam). Other tropes including “like shouting fire in a crowded theater,” “not all speech is protected” and “the line between free speech and ‘you fill in the blank’” have laughably narrow legal bases, if any. Free speech law expert at Popehat.com, Ken White, writes, “American journalists and pundits rely upon vigorous free speech, but are not reliable supporters of it. They (in their common use of these tropes) both instruct and reflect their fickle audience.”
The rights of free speech and free press are for everyone. Words that are offensive are still important. While Colgate, as a private institution, may condemn speech, it should never prohibit or limit speech. Members of this campus should remember that before American politicians steamroll them with their own playbook.