Tear down that free speech wall, eh?


Seventh-year human rights student Arün Smith ripped down a “free speech wall” at Carlton University in Ontario on Tuesday. A multi-paragraph Facebook status posted by Smith after the incident sheds light on his motive for tearing down the wall. In it, he says, “Actions and words can be used both to retrench and to challenge the cages, the boxes, the oppression, that we face, but something must be done in order that we might not suffer so much, so often.”

It appears, based on testimonies from other students who saw the wall, that this suffering was caused by someone having written “Traditional marriage is awesome.”

I’m not sure how Smith managed to completely miss the free expression part of human rights after studying them for seven years (hint: it’s Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but, alas.

Smith has justified vandalism and speech suppression by claiming that the phrase constituted violence against gays. Part of the Facebook status reads, “The erecting of this ‘wall’ is but another in a series of acts of violence against we who are forced every day to try and justify who we are.”

Speech can absolutely be violent. It can hurt feelings, incite hatred, and depict violence against others. It can slander, shame or otherwise injure. You can absolutely ruin someone’s life through words alone.

It is a mistake to defend free speech under the “sticks and stones” mindset. I don’t defend free speech because it’s benign. I defend free speech because it’s incredibly powerful. Speech incites riots, foments revolutions, cements bonds and tears them asunder. Speech introduces people to completely new ways of seeing the world and acting within it. I understand how powerful speech is and therefore understand the desire to be protected from some of it.

Smith was clearly seeking protection from speech he didn’t like. Again, from the status:

We are supposed to be creating safe(r) spaces for ourselves, and for other students, but there can be no safe(r) spaces where there is potential for triggering, the invalidation or questioning of the identities of others, and/or the expression of hatred.

Benjamin Franklin’s admonition that “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither” rings true here. I am more afraid of living in a society where I am forcefully kept from expressing my thoughts than I am afraid of hearing thoughts I dislike, however triggering, questioning, or hateful they may be.

I want to live in a world in which all voices are heard, and in a freed marketplace of ideas, thoughts are allowed to fight it out on their merits. I never want to sacrifice that so that coercive powers can “protect” me from ideas they find unfit for public consumption.

Remember: governments have long “protected” people from pro-gay sentiments, too. In fact, throughout history when speech has been forcibly limited, it’s generally been done on behalf of the majority to suppress minority opinions. One example of anti-gay speech suppression is the US military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

Let’s also not forget that markets work. They work for products and services. And they work for ideas.

A “free speech wall” is a perfect example of how this marketplace can get the results that Smith proclaims to want. The vast majority of the messages on the “free speech wall” were clearly pro-gay. And when one person wrote “Abortion is murder,” many, many more students wrote messages to contradict that idea.

The desire to regulate speech is understandable cowardice. But it’s cowardice nonetheless. We must protect the marketplace of ideas from those who wish to be protected from it. We must defend every person’s right to free expression not because speech isn’t violent, or powerful, but because it is.