Kim: "Free Speech" and the Right to Protest

The College Republicans’ appeals to free speech fall flat.

by Betty Kim | 2/27/20 2:10am

Last week, at the invitation of the Dartmouth College Republicans, U.S. Senate candidate Bryant “Corky” Messner — who is running against incumbent senator Jeanne Shaheen (D) — was scheduled to deliver a talk titled “Building a Wall Against Drugs: The Need for Border Security to End the Opioid Crisis.” I was involved in the planning of a two-pronged peaceful and educational protest against this event; that is, before the College Republicans cancelled it due to alleged “security risks.” I will speak briefly about my own political opinions and my personal motivation to protest peacefully. However, I also want to challenge the College Republicans’ cheap strategy of condemning the figure of the liberal protester rather than engaging in real political discourse with opposing ideas.

In conservative media coverage of the event and its cancellation, we can see all the predictable language about so-called radical leftists laid out neatly. As The Dartmouth Editorial Board noted in Friday’s Verbum Ultimum, the event was cancelled with little-to-no evidence of a substantial security threat — but the cancellation by the College Republicans still elicited an uproar from Messner, the College Republicans and their supporters. Terms like “free speech” are thrown around to peddle the narrative that “militant” liberal students have endangered and silenced conservatives. Twitter user Gates Lucas, who identified himself as a Dartmouth alum, tweeted in solidarity with the College Republicans: “I find it disturbing that those on the left would seek to silence opposing viewpoints with threats of violence,” Lucas wrote. 

The right has a tendency to criticize liberals by invoking “American values” and the First Amendment. And yet, it seems quite anti free expression and un-American to claim that protestors are restricting free speech, when in fact, our right to peaceful assembly and the right to free speech are protected by that same amendment.

But we shouldn’t be surprised at this point. It’s a classic move of the right to paint a picture of an immature and “oversensitive” — yet militant and physically violent — liberal student body. To them, the vaguely mentioned “threat” of left-leaning political action is the real risk; never mind the fact that Messner’s talk was an indirect threat of violence against an entire immigrant community. Instead of publicly defending their decision to host Messner, the College Republicans relied on a cheap, last-minute strategy: Cancel the event and blame it on the “intolerant left” and its supposed animal desire to use violence against the right. 

This isn’t just a Dartmouth or College Republicans problem — this is a time-honored strategy of the right, and it’s used so often because it’s a false narrative that is easily paired to any ideology. It conveniently delegitimizes opponents without forcing one to defend one’s own legitimacy. What baffles me, though, is that so many people buy into the narrative. 

It’s not hard to see what’s really going on here: Liberal dissent is being strategically misrepresented and delegitimized. Griffin Mackey ’21, the secretary of the College Republicans, told the conservative publication NHJournal, “We don’t know if [the threats] were serious or not, but our first priority has to be an event that’s safe and where people who want to hear our speaker feel welcome.” 

The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, but it in no way guarantees that all of the people listening to that speech will agree with you, “welcome” you or support you in any way. The College Republicans’ demand that their speaker be “welcomed” represents the height of hypocrisy. The College Republicans claim that the campus left doesn’t want to hear dissenting opinions, but when faced with the threat of openly expressed political disagreement, the College Republicans were the ones who reacted by shutting down the own event and blaming it on the left. The College Republicans used this cowardly move to shut down discourse — which is ironic, since that’s exactly what they claim that left is doing. 

When the campus right complains that the left is intolerant or unwilling to listen, they forget that protest is a form of discourse and a way of exercising one’s First Amendment rights. I did not plan to protest the event because I wanted to silence Republican voices; I wanted to contribute to the conversation by voicing my dissent. 

Instead of generalizing liberal protestors as “oversensitive” and condescendingly dismissing their concerns, the campus right might learn something from considering why liberal students decide to engage with these talks by protesting. Considering the anti-intellectual, blatantly racist reputations of many speakers recently invited by the College Republicans — including David Horowitz and Dinesh D’Souza — might be a good place to start.

The “agenda” of our protest was not to harm or silence College Republicans or Messner. Its purpose was to show that allies of Latinx, immigrant and undocumented people affected by the border crisis are listening, observing and reacting to xenophobia. Although the protest never happened, it seems its planning had a positive effect — during an alternative event that was held at the same time that Messner’s talk was meant to happen, several students affected by the College Republicans’ anti-immigrant statement on campus noted that they appreciated the campus left’s quick response to the College Republicans’s blatantly racist event and announcement. I suppose Messner’s talk did, in a way, yield in some fruitful political conversations.

Free speech is not threatened by liberal students lawfully protesting an event; in fact, such protest is the very definition of free speech. For its own good, the campus right must stop abusing the word “free speech” and rendering the First Amendment and generalizing arguments against so-called “sensitive liberals” meaningless. The next step would be to listen from time to time to the dissenting opinions of these “sensitive liberals,” instead of shutting them out and claiming censorship. Maybe, just maybe, there is a reason people put in so much effort to express their dissent, through protest or otherwise — political drama aside, the real fight here is for immigrants and others working to secure their families’ and communities’ safety. 

Kim is a former member of The Dartmouth senior staff and a member of the Class of 2020.

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