Stop using free speech to defend your real beliefs

The other day, a flyer was circulated around Cleveland State University’s (CSU) campus hinting at suicide rates among those in the LGBT community, and LGBT members should follow suit. CSU’s president responded to this incident by making some simple remarks about how he disapproved of the language, before defending the free speech rights of the organization behind the flyer. This has of course sparked a debate about free speech and hate speech on college campuses. A debate that I grow tired of because of the clear misdirections it involves.

I do not believe this incident with the flyer at CSU is about free speech; your right to free speech does not include your right to advocate for individuals to harm themselves. The general principle behind free speech is about everyone feeling comfortable to state their opinions. I fail to see how defending a flyer directly attacking LGBT students creates an environment where LGBT students feel welcome, and makes said students want to share their opinions. We’ve seen plenty of articles in The Observer about how conservative students claim they feel silenced on this campus; imagine how LGBT students at CSU feel, knowing their university administration outright endorses giving space to people who advocate for their physical removal and death.

But of course, people have rushed to the defense of the flyer, claiming that “free speech” means we must listen to and provide platforms for all opinions, including and especially those we deem heinous. This is a complete misinterpretation of 200 years of Supreme Court of the United States constitutional jurisprudence; our courts have long upheld restrictions on free speech. Libel, defamation, fighting words, imminent lawless action, obscenity and pornography are all restricted or prohibited according to the US Supreme Court. Free speech isn’t and has never been absolute in the US.

So I fail to see this as a discussion of free speech as an overall principle, and instead as the merits (or lack thereof) of specific speech. I strongly abhor the content of that flyer, not because I hate free speech, but because I find its content to be despicable and believe that it should not be uttered. This is, in my opinion, the crux of the issue. People are shifting discussion from the abhorrent content of the piece, to a discussion on whether or not abhorrent speech can technically be allowed. This isn’t a conversation about whether or not you can say certain things. This is a conversation about whether or not you should.   

For example, I read and disagreed with Paul Rutecki’s column about the anthem protests published on Oct. 13. in The Observer. But I do not believe Rutecki was simply saying what he said for the sake of “free speech;” the author has beliefs, and he articulated them in a column. That column is how he honestly feels. He is not trying to simply argue for the sake of arguing, he is telling the world his true beliefs, and I am allowed to disagree with him.

If someone criticizes Rutecki’s arguments, I hope someone, including Rutecki himself, is capable of defending the points he made beyond “free speech.” To paraphrase Randall Munroe, defending an argument with free speech is the ultimate concession; you are saying the only merit of your argument is that it is not literally illegal to express.

Let’s start letting arguments stand and be criticized on their own merit, and not shift it into a different discussion on free speech.


Viral Mistry

Class of 2019