The Limits of Free Speech: The Best & Brightest Business Majors Weigh In

Milo Yiannopoulos is the ultimate Rorschach. With a purring British accent and boyishly soft features, you can almost picture him warbling morose lyrics in an 80’s alt music video. Harmless? That depends where you stand.

To conservatives, he is both raconteur and provocateur, a straight shooter who skewers the politically correct sacred cows that demand unwavering fealty. For liberals, he is an enfant terrible, a privileged cribber whose jeremiads against gays, women, minorities, and migrants incite the right and minimize the marginalized.

Not surprisingly, Yiannopoulos’ antics have whipped up headlines – and drawn repercussions. Twitter banned him and his publisher dropped his book deal. On campus, he inspired protests from Chicago to Sydney. At Berkeley – once ground zero for the free speech movement – police shut down Yiannopoulos’ engagement after agitators attacked patrons and protesters alike.

A QUESTION OF HOW … AND WHO

Incidents like Berkeley – along with outcries surrounding campus visits from less incendiary figures like Condoleezza Rice – bring several questions to the fore. In an age marked by polarization and paralysis, how do you spark dialogue and debate without degenerating into slander and shaming? Where do you strike a balance between protecting First Amendment free speech and maintaining campus safety? What differentiates the unpopular and quixotic from the demagogic and bigoted – and who is responsible for deciding between the two?

In other words, how do you balance minority opinion amid the majority – or even protect majority sentiments against a scorched earth minority?

WHAT EXACTLY DOES ‘OFFENSIVE’ MEAN?

Sure enough, the Class of 2018 has some strong opinions on the matter. That starts with what “offensive” speech even means.

“The term ‘offensive’ is relative and could be interpreted many ways from different people,” writes one anonymous business major. “College campuses are the center of thoughtful exchange and learning. In fact, many of the most revolutionary acts in our nation started on college campuses. It is imperative to change and acceptance that speech is kept open on college campuses. While something may be offensive, understanding another perspective is important to learning to respect others for who they are.”

Another student framed the issue this way: “I might be offended by a veterinarian that thinks the solution to a feral cat program is euthanasia because I think about my pet cat, but that doesn’t mean that doctor should not be able to express her views in a biology lecture on campus.”

The speakers aren’t the only ones who are free to speak, adds a third business major. “I think that silencing anyone, even in the cases where the majority of people think their views are heinous or absurd, is a slippery slope that can be dangerous to start down,” she writes. “Ultimately, I believe it is on us to stand up and protest these speakers in person to show them that the masses will not approve of their offensive views, rather than an administration censoring their rights to speak and giving them an excuse or someone to blame.”

‘IF YOU’RE SILENCED, HOW CAN YOU CHANGE THINGS?’

Those are just a few views from Poets&Quants‘ Best & Brightest Business Majors from the Class of 2018. As part of the nomination process, P&Q asked students to answer the following question (with the condition of anonymity):

“Free speech concerns have inspired waves of campus protests. Do you believe that speakers should be allowed on campus to express views that could be offensive to others? Why or why not?”

Sure enough, you won’t find these business graduates retreating to their ‘echo chambers’ or sniveling like “snowflakes” over perceived slights. Instead, these students embrace the real spirit of college: engaging their peers and exposing themselves to as many views as possible.

“Free speech is and always has been a fundamental right,” writes one East Coast grad. “College is a time when we’re just learning who exactly we are and what we believe in. Granted, not everyone is going to have the same opinion and there will always be someone who is offended, but free speech is still a necessity. The status quo is never going to be perfect. If we are silenced, then what changes are going to come about?”

NOTHING WRONG WITH CHANGING YOUR MIND

Another business major cites a statement from President Barack Obama as a rationale for an expansive interpretation of free speech on campus: “The purpose of college is not just to transmit skills, [but] also to widen your horizons, make you a better citizen, help you evaluate information, and be more creative.” This clash of viewpoints, adds another Best & Brightest, only makes students stronger.

“One of the best lessons I have learned in college is that you cannot grow and become affirmed in your beliefs unless you challenge yourself. You have to constantly be open to new ideas, opinions, and experiences – even those you originally shied away from. At the end of the day, you are either stronger in your beliefs or you have changed your mind, and both are perfectly fine.”

John Stuart Mill was another source of wisdom for one Midwest Best & Brightest. Noting that it “takes courage to listen,” one students points to Mill’s 19th Century classic On Liberty as a rationale to welcome speech, even the kind that toes the proverbial line.

“Mill argues that free speech allows individuals to validate true statements, complete partially true statements, identify false statements, and reinforce the importance of discussion and debate. The protection of free speech allows our society to seek understanding of one another and to have open dialogue. Placed within the context of a university, these reasons and outcomes of free speech should far outweigh most risks associated with its protection.”

DIVERSITY WELCOMED…EXCEPT IN OPINION?

Such protection is called the “bubble” – a derisive term used to describe a setting where students are sheltered, if not coddled. While well-intentioned, such “safe” spaces are actually detrimental to personal growth, adds another respondent, since they limit exposure to the diversity that most schools espouse.

“Diversity in an individual is gained through an interaction with someone who is different than them, including people with opposing views and beliefs,” he observes. “If campuses allow speakers from outside the campus bubble to share their stories, their point of view, and their beliefs, the students will expand their knowledge through the speakers. After all, learning is not only done in the classroom. Just like the saying, “a smart man learns from his own mistakes, but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others”, a smart student learns from his or her experiences, but a wise student learns from the experiences of others.”

In fact, restrictions to speech, in another student’s view, smacks of narrow-mindedness. “Our universities should strive to lead these often uncomfortable conversations with thoughtful, respectful dialogue, rather than shaming our academic and social peers because we disagree with their viewpoint. I would argue that a truly intellectually curious student or faculty member would place greatly value the opportunity to hear from those of opposing viewpoints, and challenge their arguments with your own opinions backed up by supporting evidence and a well-reasoned argument. This seems far more logical than suppressing the opinions of others because they do not fall in line with your own.”

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