Freedom of speech is not free pass for violence

Saurabh Sharma

On Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2018, my fellow Young Conservatives and I made a stand on the West Mall of the University of Texas to express our support for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. We believed, as many Americans do, that he is innocent of grave allegations made against him. We were met with swift, aggressive, abusive and
violent resistance.

When we decried the destruction of our property, we were told to suck it up. When we condemned the invective hurled at us, we were told we deserved it. When we asked for dialogue, we were called disingenuous.

A conception of free speech properly understood has two elements: one legal, one cultural. On the legal side, The University of Texas is obligated to protect the speech of students engaging in
peaceful political speech. 

When protestors attacked us and destroyed our property, the University should have immediately removed or arrested those individuals from the premises and disciplined them. They didn’t, and the fact my members will face the specter of violence at the hands of their fellow students whenever they choose to express themselves has a chilling effect on the right that guarantees all of us — from Planned Parenthood to Palestinian Solidarity Committee — the ability to speak freely. Violence and the destruction of property is not speech.   

 But there is another element of free speech — a cultural one. A superficial legal right to speech, while necessary, isn’t sufficient to foster a society where ideas can face the disinfecting light of scrutiny and survive or die on their merits. Likewise, a university where free speech is legal, but met with unrelenting vitriol, public harassment and censure from campus communities is a university where free speech barely exists at all. Ideas kept hidden still exist, and stifling speech doesn’t destroy bad ideas — it allows them to fester. 

If you believe the ideas held by myself and my peers are wrong, express yours in return. Try to convince us. You may just succeed. Speech isn’t violence. It prevents violence by giving us the ability to negotiate our differences peaceably.

A fear of free speech is based on the insecurity your ideas, once challenged, will not endure. But an intellectually weak political left has never been my experience at The University of Texas. When engaging ideas from people ranging from moderate democrats all the way to radical socialists, I have had the privilege to debate foundational ideas about which my peers and I deeply disagree. They — and you — are intelligent, measured, calm and compelling advocates for the values you hold dear.

Don’t fear free speech. Have the courage to engage peacefully and rationally with your peers at this great University, and be prepared to discover there exists a mostly quiet minority here that is equally prepared to engage in a rational, intelligent debate on the issues that matter. And if we start from that premise, we may just achieve the promise inscribed on the Tower at the center of our campus: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

Sharma is a biochemistry senior.