May 3, 2017

Even before I opened my mouth for a living on the radio, you could read what I had to say in newspapers, in magazines, and online. “Speech,” after all, isn’t confined to just speaking. Words, in any form, are my life as much as they are my livelihood.

So it’s no stretch to say I take the concept of free speech seriously. Censorship of someone’s opinions is an ugly concept to me. But that in no way should suggest that it’s always easy to know how to feel.

Last week, lawmakers in Wisconsin floated a bill named “The Campus Free Speech Act,” which takes an interesting step to both uphold and quash free speech. On campuses around the country, hate speech has become the line over which to consider one of the country’s first fundamental questions: What does someone have the right to say vs. what does someone else have a right not to hear?

At the risk of oversimplifying, the current incarnation of this question as it relates to controversial speakers on college campuses revolves around conservative figureheads like Ann Coulter and Richard Spencer. Whenever either plans on giving a speech at a school, protests erupt. Wisconsin, apparently tired of the disruptions such attempts to block speakers causes, set forth measures to punish teachers and students at UW who actively attempt to block speakers from appearing on campus.

So on the one hand, Wisconsin legislators are supporting the rights of controversial speakers to bring their ideas to campuses. On the other, they’re quashing students’ and teachers’ rights to say they don’t want controversial speakers in their midst.

To me, these lawmakers are taking a sadly common “fire into the crowd and hope we only hit the people we want dead” approach. And because of this, the system has missed the point. Rather than setting up a measure to encourage democracy, these lawmakers have gone authoritarian.

As students pay to attend college in this country, it seems if nothing else simply polite to consider their opinions. Even if, or perhaps especially if, the school and the states that fund them don’t like what people have to say. It doesn’t seem ridiculous to me that colleges could at the beginning of each semester cull a vote by campuswide election whenever any speaker who is paid more than a nominal appearance fee, in cash, perks, or a combination thereof, is a possible presence on campus in the upcoming semester.

Holding an election based on fee ‒‒ maybe above $1,000 ‒‒ is fair and democratic, as it would empower the campus population to vote yes or no for anyone paid above a certain amount, whether it’s a controversial right wing presence like Ann Coulter, a controversial left wing presence like Michael Moore, or an utterly innocuous presence without a politicized agenda, should we ever manage to find such a pure and noble person.

In other words, rather than legalistic legislative measures, maybe it would be a good approach to let colleges sort these things out for themselves. It’s worth noting that the lawmakers looking to control the University of Wisconsin system from a centralized position of government are the same ones who rail against a centralized federal government’s control of individual states.

On the other hand, the most fundamental opposition to anyone’s speech is for a potential listener to just not listen. Were Richard Spencer to come to your campus to speak, no one would be forced to attend. He would be in a room or a hall, unable to be heard beyond the walls, meaning that if you’re not inside those walls, you would never hear.

In other words, Richard Spencer, regardless of how much or little you might agree with him, has the right to think and say what he believes (or, perhaps, what he thinks will sell merchandise). That’s freedom of speech. But you have equal freedom to just not listen.

So perhaps a reasonable solution is somewhere between heated protests, putting your fingers in your ears, and squelching the opposition to someone’s presence on a campus. Whatever that answer might be (hint: my idea), I don’t think punishing students and faculty for speaking against someone is it.

But then, perhaps Wisconsin is just exercising its right to just not listen to what its campus populations have to say.

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Photo credit: Robin Klein, courtesy of WikiCommons