Atlantic contributor and Seton Hall Constitutional Law Professor Thomas Healy spoke about free speech on college campuses and the limits of free speech last Wednesday in Price Center East Ballroom.
“If you’ve paid any attention to the news in the last year or two, you probably know that free speech in the United States is under attack,” Healy said facetiously as he began his speech. “And the people who are attacking it are… you. Well, at least those of you that are college students.”
His talk, entitled “Who’s Afraid of Free Speech?,” addressed many of the same claims made in his June piece in The Atlantic with the same name. Healy disputed the claim that college students are attacking free speech and discussed acceptable ways to express freedom of speech and counter-speech. Following Healy’s speech, UC San Diego Communication Professor Robert Horowitz spoke about the 14th Amendment and how racial inequality historically led to a restriction of free speech for marginalized groups, ending with an hour-long Q & A session.
Healy began by attacking the current narrative of college students being against free speech, which he attributed to people on both ends of the political spectrum. In order to provide context, Healy paraphrased racialist and white supremacist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who in February said that ”student activists are absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.”
“Just because free speech allows you to do something, doesn’t mean you should do it,” Healy said, before suggesting that college students should instead embrace reason, debate, and using “measured responses” instead of being pulled into the “muck of viciousness that strips you of your principles and personal ethics.”
Healy said that he supports measured responses because some speakers like Yiannopoulos try to provoke violence to monetize outrage. In this case, he believes high profile counter-speech that draws a lot of attention to the speaker is counterproductive; college students should not use extreme social restraints such as violent protest to avoid giving them attention. He believes that events where students attempt to shut down free speech, like the violent protests at UC Berkeley, are not as common as the media makes them sound, but any kind of violent protest is unacceptable because it makes people afraid of expressing their views.
Healy believes that reasonable social restraints on speech, such as protests, petitions, boycotts, and heckling, are perfectly valid ways to respond to speakers, while conceding they can limit debate. He argued that the First Amendment only applies to the government to prevent censorship, and while he believes that the government cannot regulate hate speech, he does think individuals can still fight it, as long as they do not use “coercive” counter-speech that completely prevents a speaker from talking.
“On one hand, we are encouraged to be tolerant of opposing ideas,” Healy said. “On the other hand, unlike the government, we as individuals are not expected to remain neutral observers.”
To conclude, Healy described Cohen vs. California Supreme Court, a free speech case that overturned a man’s conviction for wearing a T-shirt that said “Fuck the draft. Healy said that the case can be used as an example: it’s up to each individual to decide what free speech means to them and how they will use it to shape public debate.
Ethan Coston is a staff writer at The Triton.