By Brandy Mello
With the shift in the American political climate, a slew of controversial speakers are gaining widespread attention. They’ve always had the platform, but the current outrage and occasional violent response puts them on a global stage. When protests turn into riots, the controversial speaker becomes a constitutional martyr and the protester a destroyer of democracy.
As Americans, we have the constitutional freedom to choose religion, to form groups and to speak freely about our beliefs. The First Amendment offers protection of expression and speech, even hateful provoking speech. The United States Constitution does not police public speech of its citizenry. While hateful speech is constitutionally protected, acts of violence are not. In response to offensive speech, we have the right to counter in protest – peacefully.
The day Ann Coulter’s speaking event on the Berkeley campus was canceled, I participated in a Living Room Conversation about Free Speech on Campus. The discussion group consisted of two University students (one being a Berkeley student), a parent of a college student and two other parents of younger children. This is my takeaway from that exchange.
College campuses have struggled with controversial speakers, free speech zones and violent protests. Some student groups want to host notoriously offensive speakers and other students feel justified in responding to the spread of threatening ideology with violence. Universities have responded by shutting out speakers, creating (and later eliminating) free speech zones and employing riot police during speaking engagements. In the background, parents are biting their nails. They want Universities to be safe and nonthreatening, but upholding democracy has its risks.
Shutting down a controversial speaker degrades our first amendment rights. Its unconstitutionality paints the opposition as unlawful, rather than focusing on the spread of demeaning and discriminatory sentiment. It is notably challenging to effectively oppose hate, while granting freedom of speech. It is difficult to face verbal assault or hateful ideology that threatens home, status, identity or way of life. Hate speech does not add to constructive dialog, but it is an American right and we must respect our rights to preserve them.
Maintaining freedom in any form can be uncomfortable and feel unsafe at times, but non-violent protest can function as a catalyst for change. Prior to the presidential election, our country saw nationwide protests and vigils for the Black Lives Matter movement. Communities stood up to the unjustified killings of Black Americans. Many of the protests and vigils were peaceful. The relentless protesting and growing numbers of people willing to stand up and speak out against police brutality forced a dialog between policing agencies, the communities they police and the nation. There is still a great deal of work to be done to combat police brutality and racism in America. And we should not pretend that the problems facing these communities are solved, but large protests served to begin a broader dialog regarding the crisis.
When a person or group becomes violent in response to a legal event or verbal assault, the law-abiding agitator is seen as the wounded party and the perpetrator of the violent reaction is vilified. Violence only sharpens the tools of the provocateur. Their goal is to elicit intense reaction, to turn the lovers into haters and to turn the opposition into the enemy. Violence is not only unlawful and unethical, but it gives the antagonist the advantage.
Since the recent presidential election, the usually sedate electorate has been propelled out of their seats and into the streets. Most of the protesting has been peaceful. Regardless, protest is resistance and fuel for the story to be skewed. Many who disapprove try to paint protest as criminal or un-American.
The Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration was a beautiful experience for me, a coming together in the name of women. But in the week following the march, participants were portrayed as un-American and some citizens interviewed were referring to the march as a riot. I heard a woman state that she could not understand “all these riots” over the president being rightfully elected. This was an attempt to change the story. Fortunately, the media coverage clarified the event as peaceful and the unprecedented numbers took center stage. There truly is power in numbers. We just need to show up.
Freedom of speech is imperative to a healthy democracy. Peaceful and respectful demonstration draws attention to opposing views, challenges hateful ideology, and allows freedom of speech. Campuses are a place to learn, grow and practice democratic values. Embrace the difficult and sometimes threatening dialog as a chance to speak out against hateful ideas brewing in American culture. They are alive, whether we hear them or not.
Brandy Mello lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and two children on a construction site. She is always a student and an educator, a reader, a writer, and a conversationalist who dabbles in videography.