Putting Free Speech to Use

Illustrator: Morgan Wittmers

Protesting Ben Shapiro’s appearance at the U is not only constitutionally protected—it’s also morally justified.

Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro—known for his high-octane, mile-a-minute “take-downs” of transgender activists, snowflake students, and other members of the liberal hegemony—is set to speak at the University of Minnesota on Feb. 26.

His appearance will likely prompt protests from student activists. It’s just as predictable that conservative students will run to the First Amendment to claim their rights are being infringed upon, in addition to outside commentators questioning why college students can’t handle differing viewpoints. Through it all, people will continue to perpetuate an overly rigid, not to mention inaccurate, understanding of free speech.

In the debate over free speech on college campuses, many fail to get one of the most fundamental facts right: The First Amendment only applies to governmental action. It prevents the government from regulating the content of citizens’ speech. It places no such restriction on citizens.

Free speech, after all, is about choice. Citizens have a choice whether to agree or disagree, whether to listen or respond, whether to stay silent or speak up. We don’t have to accept every terrible idea, let every bigot talk, or give a platform to every hateful ideology. We have the freedom to criticize and, yes, to protest what our fellow Americans have to say. And when someone like Shapiro comes to our community, that’s exactly what we should do.

Shapiro, like many contemporary conservative figures, positions himself as a defender of free speech. But those who claim to be the strongest defenders of the First Amendment are often the first to attack others for using it, whether it’s criticism directed at NFL players, BLM protesters, or college students.

Shapiro has routinely criticized the protesters outside of his own speaking appearances, often acting like the overly offended lefties he so often derides. Shapiro’s response to protesters in Berkeley is telling: “You can all go to hell, you pathetic, lying, stupid jackasses.”

“Shapiro’s response to protesters in Berkeley is telling: ‘You can all go to hell, you pathetic, lying, stupid jackasses.’”

Perhaps he could use a reminder that the same constitutional protections—the principles outlined in Brandenburg, O’Brien, and Texas v. Johnson—he receives inside his events also apply to the protesters outside.

But it’s safe to say that Shapiro already knows this. He’s a smart guy. He graduated from UCLA at age 20 and has a law degree from Harvard. He also knows how to capitalize on faux-outrage and manufactured controversy to gain a following. It’s a cynical living, granted, but that’s his prerogative.

Already Shapiro and the Young America’s Foundation, which is sponsoring his appearances, have begun warping the meaning of free speech, accusing the University of infringing upon their rights because of the venue choice, which is on the wrong part of Twin Cities campus, evidently. It matters little that the University police worked with conservative students to choose the spot, or that authorities will spend millions, if necessary, to ensure the event goes as planned. If it seems counterintuitive that Shapiro—who’s made his career largely off saying whatever he wants, regardless of the impact on others—claims his rights are being violated, that’s because it is.

In fairness, Shapiro did stand up for a female reporter at Breitbart who was physically assaulted by President Trump’s former campaign manager. And he’s continued to criticize Trump, despite receiving a wave of anti-Semitic hate from alt-right trolls. (Shapiro himself is Jewish.) But a few good acts don’t excuse a career largely based on hostility. You don’t have to be the devil to warrant justified criticism.

Shapiro is by no means a member of the alt-right, but he is still an ultra-conservative bully, albeit a highly articulate one. His far-right views on small government and fiscal conservatism may disregard the needs of our country’s most vulnerable citizens. But his backward thinking on social issues directly attacks their humanity.

He likens transgenderism to mental illness, equates Muslims to radical terrorists, believes the rape epidemic is exaggerated, and demeans anyone who disagrees with his narrow worldview. Shapiro, like the rest of us, has the freedom to say what he wants. Unlike many of us, he’s used this liberty to dehumanize people.

Protesting Shapiro isn’t just constitutionally protected, it’s the right thing to do. Contrary to the meek position of more moderate stalwarts, we don’t have an obligation to find common ground or hear both sides out. In this instance, one side is clearly wrong.  Sometimes protesting—real action with understood expression—gets the job done.

And criticism doesn’t just hold for Shapiro. It’s also warranted for the groups—Students for a Conservative Voice, Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, and Minnesota Students for Liberty—that are equally responsible for spreading his hate. These groups can invite any speaker they wish into our community. And they chose to bring Shapiro to campus, knowing he would stir controversy. They chose to elevate his ideas, knowing they would cause distress to other students.

What does it say about these students, that they use the privilege of free speech to target their peers, if only to prove a wholly unnecessary point that the First Amendment still exists?

This situation extends past a basic understanding of what is allowed and what is not. We know that students are allowed to invite Shapiro but focusing solely on this freedom obscures an honest evaluation of why they feel the need to.

More so, this obsession with the legal aspects of free speech, with conservatives claiming the mantle as its protectors, passes the buck, and critical analysis, on to protesters. Perhaps instead of asking why college students will protest a controversial speaker like Shapiro, we should be questioning why fellow members of our campus community feel the need to support someone like him.

Of course, protesters still have an obligation to freedom of speech. We can still condemn a speaker like Shapiro without condemning speech in general. And it goes without saying that we can protest without escalating to violence. We can remain steadfast in our beliefs without compromising nuance.

“If it seems counterintuitive that Shapiro—who’s made his career largely off saying whatever he wants, regardless of the impact on others—claims his rights are being violated, that’s because it is.”

I’ll admit that too often some college students blur the line between opposing hateful speech and outlawing it. Banning certain forms of speech may be tempting when we consider certain speech violent or inhumane, but I’m uncomfortable with a future where decision-makers like President Kaler—or worse, the current commander-in-chief—have the authority to define or to prohibit speech on their own accord. There’s ample breathing room between staying silent and completely prohibiting speech.

Our attention should be directed at those with choice in this matter, like Shapiro and his supporters. The University and law enforcement officials, on the other hand, are legally bound to neutrality. Let’s remember that a set of campus community members have made the conscious choice to attack our peers.

When conservative critics and so-called defenders of free speech begin their chorus of condemnation for protesters, we should remind ourselves what free speech really means. The government (and by extension, public universities) cannot, and should not, regulate speech, but citizens are free to do so ourselves.

Not only do we have the freedom to criticize Shapiro, we also have the moral obligation. And anyone who understands the First Amendment knows that protesting Shapiro isn’t antithetical to free speech. It’s putting it to use.