Free Speech & Feeling Unsafe

A somewhat recent talking point on the right is that “the liberals” are trying to violate the free speech rights of conservatives. On the one hand, this is a hasty generalization: the left counts among its numbers some of the staunchest advocates of free expression who defend the right of conservatives to engage in free expression. On the other hand, there are those on the left who are actively trying to silence conservative voices. That said, is important to distinguish between attempts to silence people and legitimate acts of protest.

To illustrate, the incident involving Charles Murray at Middlebury College illustrates how some people try to unjustly silence those they disagree with. In contrast, the students at Notre Dame who walked out on Vice President Pence’s speech were engaged in a legitimate protest—they expressed their disagreement without harassing or silencing pence. However, the Pence incident had an interesting twist that is well worth considering.

Two of the students who walked out on Pence’s speech explained their motivation: “The walkout was in response to the fact that members of our own community felt unwelcome, uncomfortable, and even unsafe…” I do understand why having Mike Pence speak would make some people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable—after all, Pence makes no secret of his views on various social and moral issues. No doubt some conservative students would feel just as unwelcome and uncomfortable in the presence of a liberal speaker. While I do think speakers should endeavor to make their audience welcome and comfortable, this is not a moral obligation on the part of speakers—especially on college campuses. A key part of education is being pushed outside of one’s comfort zone in terms of such things as values, beliefs and ideology. Students do, of course, have every right to resist being pushed out of this zone; but this is typically their loss when they succeed. The students might have benefited from enduring Pence’s words; but they did have the right to refuse to listen. After all, the right of free expression means that one should not be silenced, not that one can compel others to pay attention.

What is worrisome is the use of the term “unsafe.” When I first heard some vague details about this episode, I initially thought the students were concerned that there might be violence at the event—as has happened elsewhere. That would, of course, be legitimate grounds for concerns about safety. After all, to feel unsafe is to feel that one is at risk for harm. However, after listening to a discussion of the incident on NPR, I realized that the claim was that Pence’s mere presence as a speaker made people feel unsafe. They did not, obviously, think that Pence would attack them physically.

One way to interpret the matter is that people thought they would be harmed in some meaningful way by Pence’s presence and his words. While people can certainly inflict harm with words, it would seem to be an odd use of “unsafe” in the context of the Vice President giving a speech. But perhaps some people are so lacking in resilience that the expression of ideas they do not like or the presence of someone they disagree with can cause harm to them. In this case, they would thus be wise to leave the area before sustaining such harm. To use an analogy, if someone was so sensitive to noise that a speech would cause them pain, they should not attend the speech. They do not, however, have the right to insist that the speech not be made simply because they would experience pain.

A second, and more plausible way, to interpret this is that “unsafe” is referring to a stronger version of being uncomfortable and not a feeling that meaningful danger is imminent. While words mean what they do as a matter of convention, shifting the meaning of words in this manner is problematic for communication. As noted above, I initially thought the students feared a riot, which caused some confusion. Another potential problem is that using “unsafe” in this context makes the expression of ideas that one does not like seem dangerous. While this might be a rhetorical point the students were trying to make to justify walking out, this is a misuse of the language. To be specific, it is hyperbole that serves to distort the matter by conflating merely being uncomfortable with being in danger. Because of these problems, the term “unsafe” should not be used in such contexts. Instead, it should be used for cases in which there is an actual threat to safety and rights. Such as the push by some against free expression by conservatives.

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  1. Genuine FREE speech requires the discipline to LISTEN.

  2. The issue isn’t students not looking what Pence has to say for some arbitrary reason. Rather, it is that Pence advocates positions that would, if enacted, devastate the lives of many people in marginalized segments of society.

    People who claim that hate speech should be protected as free speech need to go back and step 1: consider what _effects_ these speech patterns have on marginalized groups and step 2: consider what such patterns would be likely to even come _close_ to hang comparable effect on the lives of more privileged classes. You will find that what you come up with things such as slander/libel which have _long_ been _uncontroversially_ seen as being beyond the bounds of free speech.

  3. TYPO “students not looking what” -> “students not liking what”

  4. Karen Lankford

    I believe when people refer to feeling unsafe by the presence of Pence as a speaker, they are referring to his longtime advocacy for “conversion therapy” for homosexuals. This so-called treatment has been derided by the psychiatric community because it basically involves torturing a person when they become aroused by same sex erotic images. When people in authority indicate support for such ideas, it tends to increase the number of hate crimes perpetrated against gay people.

    And in response to Grace Ann: No. Free speech does not require that people listen. I am not obliged to listen to the ravings of sidewalk preachers or go to a KKK rally to hear what the other side has to say. I am free to chose to listen and read content that I find interesting and informative.

  5. Kevin Henderson

    As far as I can tell no one is being forced to listen to campus speakers. Let alone forced to believe in what they say or act on those words.

    The ‘unsafe’ culture is disconnected from reality. Hiding behind hurt feelings and then throwing rocks just because someone says something racist or sexist or bigoted leaves one in a prison.

    Ignoring inciteful speech is extremely powerful. These people will have no marketplace to voice their views and their numbers will correspondingly fade.

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