The independent news organization of Duke University

Column: Make a stand for free speech

Two weeks ago, Duke police expelled two religious demonstrators from the Chapel Quad for "speaking loudly", "upsetting the passers-by", and for violating the University's "no solicitation policy." The odds are fairly good that you disagreed with their message, which condemned a litany of behaviors and religious groups. You should, however, have also disagreed with their expulsion.

Duke probably had the right to remove the men, since the University is private property. However, the action clearly demonstrates content-based discrimination, since protests on all sorts of subjects are routinely held on the quad, involving speaking loudly and quite possibly upsetting passers-by, which are not dispersed as being solicitation. This event demonstrated a willingness to silence unpopular ideas that is shameful for a university like Duke, which should strive to be a marketplace of ideas and an open forum for discussion. This action should not only anger students, but make them wary, because it poses the haunting question: What happens if your opinions are deemed to violate the "no solicitation policy"?

Expressing socially unpopular opinions has never been easy. Several factors make the current environment especially difficult for all sorts of political positions. Rising nationalism has occasionally manifested itself by silencing dissent in the name of patriotism, making anti-anti-Americanism into the new political correctness. Meanwhile, as this incident demonstrates, the older version of political correctness has not lost its power to suppress debate by dictating the terms in which certain issues may be discussed.

These forces and others will continue to exert their pressure on a variety of issues, making certain opinions difficult to express. Those who are brave enough to voice these unpopular ideas will face persecution ranging from ad hominem attacks, like accusations of being unpatriotic or racist, to physical force, as the two demonstrators found out two Thursdays ago. It is our duty-as students, as citizens and as thinkers-to express the ideas that we think are important, and to defend the right of others to do the same.

We may shy away from voicing unpopular opinions, or allowing them to be voiced, because of the fear of creating an uproar. After all, that was demonstrators' primary offense, as cited by the police. But we should never hesitate to cause an uproar, or be part of one, because uproar is the sound of passionate debate. As long as we demand truth and not silence from our opposition, debate is being fueled and ideas are being forged. A community as diverse as Duke should be in a nearly constant state of commotion, as long as everyone's ideas are allowed to be expressed.

A sincere commitment to diversity demands a passionate defense of free speech. How can we pretend to value a variety of opinions from different cultures if we don't allow some ideas to even be spoken? Free speech enables diversity to exist, as it allows the exchange of ideas that makes diversity valuable. A commitment to diversity which does not include the protection of all expression becomes nothing more than an excuse to advance a specific political agenda, as authority figures decide which cultures get semi-annual shows in Page Auditorium and which are escorted off campus by the police.

Maybe it's too much to ask that Duke students make a stand for diversity and open debate while being told that they're bound for eternal damnation. It's certainly too late to change the outcome of this event, in which the desire for comfortable silence trumped the duty to allow open public discussion. I will ask, though, that you learn something from those fanatics. Imagine the courage it takes to publicly express ideas that will get you escorted from campus by the police. Figure out whether you have it.

This incident proves that if your ideas are unpopular enough you might need it.

Russell Williams is a Pratt junior. His column appears every third Wednesday.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Column: Make a stand for free speech” on social media.