February 7, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 42°F

ColumnsElephant in the Room

Free speech is vital

In the last week, flag burning and a former senator’s visit to Cornell University have shed light on the ongoing struggle for freedom of speech in the U.S.

Let’s start with a tweet by President-elect Donald Trump, in which he said that flag burners should lose their citizenship or face a year in jail. Trump was responding to a wave of postelection protests, many of which have occurred on college campuses. Most notably, a flag was burned at Hampshire College, which prompted university officials to at first replace it and then remove it.

While I would never burn the U.S. flag, I firmly believe it should be a protected form of expression. Our nation was founded by a group of revolutionaries who stood up to a monarch. We cannot allow our country to censor forms of expression that politicians deem offensive. But I would urge students to focus on constructive protests that allow them to engage in the political process.

And now on to the visit by a former senator. Last week, I attended Rick Santorum’s speech at Cornell. Before Santorum even entered the auditorium, protesters were prepared to silence him. Let me be clear: I do not agree with Santorum on numerous issues. But I was eager to hear what the two-time presidential candidate had to say. Through a lack of civility, protesters diminished the legitimacy of their own claims. They shouted obscenities, making Santorum look better and demonstrating that college campuses, which were once a marketplace of ideas, are now intolerant to differing views.

As a nation, we must reaffirm our commitment to freedom of speech. It is through exposure to a range of ideas that people can challenge their own thoughts. My views have adapted and evolved countless times, thanks to courses taught by a liberal faculty. But I worry for my liberal classmates, who can go four years insulated from conservative views. The growing trend of disinviting and protesting speakers on college campuses must stop. Just as politicians shouldn’t be able to arbitrarily censor speech, neither should mobs of college students.

Hampshire College was also in the news in 2013, when students convinced the administration to disinvite a band from performing at the college. The Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union was “deeply disturbed” by the incident. Silencing guest speakers for their opinion but burning a flag to express your own views is contradictory and dangerous. From college campuses to the Oval Office, we need freedom of speech more than ever.

Kyle Stewart can be reached at kstewart1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @KyleStew107