The right to free speech is a staple of American democracy. It is enshrined in our Constitution and a crucial part of the First Amendment. When movements attempt to restrict it, the backlash is always controversial and often reprehensible. In short, we as Americans believe in the immense value of “freedom of speech,” but how well do we really understand what this means, and what “freedom” it entails? More and more, it seems as if we don’t understand the meaning behind this freedom.
Nowhere is this misunderstanding more clear than in the controversy sparked by the Common Language Document a few weeks ago. The Common Language Document, or CLD, was written in an effort to create common definitions for a number of terms related to identity politics. However, the Amherst College Republicans (ACR) found their views unrepresented by the language of the document, and responded by releasing a statement to several conservative news outlets, which accused the school of restricting their speech rights.
While this isn’t to say that the CLD wasn’t problematic, the ACR shouldn’t have invoked free speech as a grievance. Accusing the college of violating freedom of speech changes the nature of the issue, from a disagreement over definitions to systematic censorship of a viewpoint. In this way, crying “free speech” vindicates the Republicans’ claim in a way that is entirely undeserved.
That doesn’t mean the Republicans are villains who are manipulating language and people to gain support. Rather, like many of us, the Amherst College Republicans have misconceptions about what protections “freedom of speech” has to offer. The First Amendment dictates that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” From this excerpt, there are two clear takeaways, which apply to nearly all of the free speech legal doctrine: 1) The First Amendment enforces inaction, meaning it tells the government what it can’t do, rather than telling it what it must do. 2) The amendment places a restriction on the government, and no one else.
This means that “freedom of speech” is really “freedom from the government preventing you from speaking.” No one has any legal burden to actively protect your speech, nor ensure that it is heard. It also means that “free speech” is a bulwark that can only be used against the government, which excludes private institutions like private universities.
Since Amherst is a private college, “free speech” doesn’t really apply. The college is bound by its own rules (such as those in the Student Code of Conduct), and by anti-discrimination law, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because free speech law has no real bearing on Amherst, invoking “free speech” becomes little more than an attack on the school’s reputation. Accusing the administration of censoring free speech is akin to accusing it of behaving tyrannically. If the school was restricting speech, it would show a lack of respect for its students’ views and reveal the administration’s gross insistence on having its own way. Making this accusation insinuates that the school is unwelcoming towards certain viewpoints, which is a blatant contradiction of its values.
However, this kind of attack has its consequences and offers no real solutions. Accusing the college of censorship forces the administration into a corner, where, in order to avoid negative media attention, it must appease those accusing it. Furthermore, the real issue the Republicans had with the CLD is that its definitions ran contrary to their values, and they felt that their viewpoint was not represented. Oversimplifying and misidentifying the issue as a violation of free speech only further polarizes the issue. Accusing the college of censoring their views does nothing to foster inclusiveness, which is exactly what the Republicans complained the CLD’s creation was lacking. Instead, it forced people to take sides.
Misunderstanding the meaning of free speech has real consequences. Because of the special place free speech occupies in our nation, accusations of infringing on freedom of speech should be taken very seriously. “Knowing your rights” isn’t just understanding when you do have rights, but also understanding when you don’t. We should strive to understand what “free speech” really means and use it sparingly and appropriately, rather than lash out against political opposition.