If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it, did it really make a sound?
Comparably, if white supremacist Richard Spencer arrives on campus sharing his ideology, but no students show up to listen, do his words hold any merit?
Questions like this are being asked in administrative boardrooms and lecture halls alike all over the country. At what point is freedom of speech and expression superseded by the feelings of those at which such insolent language is aimed?
Should speech be restricted if it is hateful? Offensive? How about if it’s simply morally repugnant?
The Supreme Court answered that question last summer. In the Matal vs. Tam decision, the court ruled unanimously there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. Justice Samuel Alito wrote:
“[The idea that the government may restrict] speech expressing ideas that offend … strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.'”
The court leaves no room for debate; so-called “hate speech” is protected by the Constitution.
The University of Mississippi is no stranger to this debate. Retired Dean of Students Sparky Reardon dealt with a myriad of issues concerning free speech in his 38 years at the university, and most most notably in his 14 years as dean.
From the KKK to fire and brimstone preachers, Reardon understood that, as the state’s flagship university, it was his duty to help facilitate their free expression on campus.
“Whether you agree with it or not, you must respect their right to speech,” he said. “As a university official, you’re obligated to ensure they’re protected and secure.”
He then told a story of a young woman who was offended by the words of a preacher on campus, and asked Reardon to silence him.
Reardon responded: “I understand, but if you want me to make him quit, understand that when you go to your own group next week and someone claims that it offends them, I’d have to tell them to stop too.”
This sentiment is echoed in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion from the Matal case. Kennedy wrote: “A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence.”
This decision came on the heels of UC-Berkeley’s decision to cancel the speeches of right-wing speakers Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Concerns over security and violent counter-protests forced the university’s hand in cancelling the speeches, an unintended side effect that Reardon also echoed.
“That’s going to be a point that someone has to bring into consideration: Who’s going to bear the cost of that protection? Nationwide, it’s a huge issue.”
However, what Reardon said next encapsulates the free speech debate in its entirety.
“If you don’t want to be offended, don’t go to where you can hear it,” he said. “If a speaker is going to come speak, and people who might be offended, but want to challenge their ideas, let them go. Understand that the speaker with which you might not agree might cause you to question your commitment, or to changing things, or to reinforce what you believe. Look at it like an opportunity.”
At Ole Miss, however, the debate extends beyond the pulpit. The eyes of the nation fixated upon Oxford as the Chancellor’s Contextualization Committee – a committee of faculty, experts, and the ASB President slated with acknowledging the university’s checkered past – published its report last summer.
Their final report called for the re-naming of two buildings, contextualization of four others, and the creation of nine new steps along the university walking tour.
Dion Kevin, associated student body president, believes Ole Miss has taken the right steps in dealing with symbols and history on campus.
“I think the university is a real beacon to the rest of the country in how we manage our sort of checkered past,” he said, “and sort of come to grips with what our university is and has been, and what were trying to be.”
Kevin echoed Reardon’s sentiments, citing, “as an educational institution, we have responsibility to educate students – not just in the classical liberal arts sense, but about what our university, Mississippi, and the South is.”
The quintessence of higher education is characterized directly through the persistent clash of ideas, something integral to the sustenance of free speech in America. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, in an account on the state of academic expression and collegiate free speech, delivered a powerful yet succinct portrayal of the situation.
“[Free Speech] is our salvation from intellectual mediocrity and social ossification,” he wrote. “If it isn’t actively defended, it will rapidly be eroded.”