9-20-16 Free Speech Alley

Free speech alley in front of the LSU Student Union on Tuesday Sept. 20, 2016.

The controversy over the line between hate speech and free speech has always been a fight between conservatives who cite the First Amendment as their only credible rationale and liberals who aren’t even sure how to define hate speech.

Since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, America has had to deal with a candidate who embodies and exemplifies this controversy and forces us to confront it.

I once thought I loved free speech. As someone involved in media, the First Amendment was my best friend. That is, until I faced the reality that people, like they do to all good things in the world, abuse it and use it as justification for reckless and hateful behavior.

One of the main proponents of this pseudo-patriotic ideology is a man is bringing his controversy to an already

vulnerable University community: Milo Yiannopoulos. He is known to liberals in our generation mainly as the guy who got kicked off Twitter for harassing Leslie Jones with racist and sexist insults, while indirectly encouraging his followers to do the same.

His defense came as no surprise: “My suspension has made one thing clear, Twitter doesn’t stand for free speech.”

As just another Trump-supporting, liberal-hating attention seeker, Yiannopoulos scoffs at agendas like feminism and racial equality. Instead, he stands for important matters such as men’s rights and the right to call someone fat and ugly.

I get it. Progressive movements can sometimes be quite overwhelming. It’s hard when a white man has to watch minority groups gain equality in the world. Now, all the sad white men who have been taken out of the spotlight have banded together under one supreme leader — Trump — who will lead them to the promised land of white supremacy once again.

LSU Students for Trump ambassador David Walters says there was no real motivation behind getting Yiannopoulos to speak on campus besides the fact that he’s a Trump supporter and a conservative.

Protesters on campus and all around the country who don’t want Yiannopoulos’ hateful rhetoric to infect their college environment say he is violating university safe spaces.

Walters says it is unreasonable to limit free speech just because someone is afraid of getting their feelings hurt. In the real world, he says, there are no safe spaces or trigger warnings.

Walters is partly right: To stop a message because it might offend someone is not a justification for censorship. What is justification, though, is the fact that the free expression of hateful ideas has led to an environment of tension between the groups who are perpetuating such speech and the groups who are targeted by it. This in turn leads to an atmosphere in which only the ones inflicting the harmful speech feel comfortable.

Let’s be real: The only people who feel the need to defend their freedom of expression behind the First Amendment are those who are clearly misusing it as a platform to attack censorship in its entirety.

Even Walters admits that there are limits to free speech, such as not being able to yell “Fire!” in a movie theatre when there isn’t one. Why does that exception exist? Because it causes a sense of panic and fear when there’s no justified reason for it — just like hate speech

It’s a battle in which old ideologies don’t account for modern day realities. When the First Amendment was written, it couldn’t have accounted for Twitter battles and social media showdowns influencing human opinion and behavior. It couldn’t have foreseen the existence of people like Yiannopoulos and Trump, who force us to define what abusive speech is.

The real danger is how these words affect our community. Not only do people like Leslie Jones feeling like they’re trapped in a “personal hell” when the free speech advocates come out to play, but it incites mindless followers to act hatefully and sometimes even violently.

Some say they cannot be held accountable for reactions to their speech, but without accountability, society cannot function. No man can live as an island. Our words and ideas have real consequences.

Walters claims what we liberals are truly scared of is a “diversity of ideas.” We apparently cannot handle the possibility of real diversity and equality because it comes with the possibility of truth in these messages of hatred. The thing is, the ideas that conservatives like Yiannopoulos, Trump and Students for Trump hold close are not new. They have been in our country’s cultural mainstream for decades — when African-Americans were still slaves and women still couldn’t vote.

The bottom line is, conservatives do not believe their free speech will ever be harmful enough to constitute censorship because they cannot even acknowledge how much harm their ideologies can do. This is where the standoff always ends. The definition of hate speech will always depend on the perspective and social standing of the audience.

The University and Baton Rouge are already marked by vulnerability and tension following the Alton Sterling and police shootings that took place this summer. To have someone like Yiannopoulos speak in a place that can’t afford any more hostility is only asking to alienate people who already feel displaced in society.

Walters and other conservatives view our reactions as overly dramatic, considering only people who want to hear the speech are supposed to attend. But if you ask me, a minority woman, how I feel about the free speech argument in this case, I’d say that I simply don’t understand.

I don’t understand why my university welcomes speakers who clearly have a strong bias against my gender or skin tone to speak at my place of education, which also happens to be a Predominantly White Institution. From my point of view, it looks as though white men will always be able to say and do what they want and use the law to hide behind it, no matter what the consequences for the rest of us are.

Anjana Nair is an 18-year-old international studies sophomore from Baton Rouge.

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