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My experience with free speech

the voice of dissent

When I started writing for The Chronicle eleven months ago, roughly a year had passed since a group that named itself “Concerned and Conscious Duke Students” had created the following petition on change.org: “We are demanding the immediate removal of Jonathan Zhao as editor of the Duke Chronicle's editorial page.” The petition argued that Zhao’s column “the plight of black America,” “[proliferated] racist stereotypes and misinformation about an entire group of people.” In addition, the petition argued, Jonathan Zhao should be removed from his position because he “also [had] a history of publishing inflammatory and ill-conceived pieces in the newspaper,” which “[indicated] his inability to moderate the Chronicle’s opinion section fairly and well in this upcoming school year.”

The event proper to Duke’s campus did not occur in a vacuum but rather in the context of increasing restrictions on freedom of speech on college campuses. Two factors have fueled this trend. First, Title IX initially aimed to cancel federal funding to institutions that do not properly tackle discriminations based on gender. However, in the last six years, the federal government broadened the definition of sexual assault to “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” and eliminated a protection that such conduct had to be offensive to a reasonable person.

According to Will Creeley, vice president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the amended Title IX “invites censorship” by educational institutions that are frightened to lose funding. The second factor that has led to the roll-back of free speech on campuses is the culture of millennials. Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, argued in The Atlantic that parents raised millennials in an overprotective environment. Now that they are in college, they demand to be protected from any kind of speech that could make them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, and thus advocate for restrictions on free speech.

It is in this environment—in the past year throughout which speakers were disinvited across the country, trigger warnings and “safe spaces” proliferated and a growing number of students became vocal about their hostility to certain conservative views—that I started writing for The Chronicle. As a person who holds many conservative and nationalistic views that run counter to the liberal consensus on college campuses, I was prepared to face backlash, controversy and even intimidation from those who disagreed with my views. Nonetheless, I cannot describe my joy and excitement when The Chronicle communicated its official policy to us columnists: you are free to write whatever you want as long as it is properly articulated and backed by evidence.

This is exactly the standard I have set for myself when thinking and writing about political issues. I do not try to shock people or spark controversy; I strive to be as “objective” and “scientific” as possible, putting my ego and my emotions aside. I do so not because I strive to be “politically correct” and to avoid offending people, but because embarking on that path would take me and the people around me further away from truth. Indeed, although I hold my own views, which I have addressed in my column, I believe that truth is complex and multifaceted. In an argument, every side holds one part of the truth, as tiny as it may be. Otherwise, respective sides would not feel the urge to speak up and make claims they deem legitimate. The problem is that most people start their arguments from a legitimate concern and “take it to the extreme,” using words that they do not properly define which bear negative connotations. They end up advocating for radical solutions that do not account for the other side of the debate.

For example, one of the views I hold dear is the cultural assimilation of immigrants in the United States. To make the case for assimilation, I once cited an article in The American Interest by Jonathan Haidt, where he argued that “Having a shared sense of identity, norms, and history generally promotes trust… Societies with high trust, or high social capital, produce many beneficial outcomes for their citizens: lower crime rates, lower transaction costs for businesses, higher levels of prosperity, and a propensity toward generosity, among others.”

However, many people favoring multiculturalism as an alternative integration model would caution against the bigotry and hate that such such nationalistic thinking could fuel. And indeed, a study conducted by Vasiliki Fouka, assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, shows that people who think like me would need to listen to the other side of the debate in their quest for truth. After World War I, several US states barred the German language from their schools. Fouka found that the German-Americans affected by that policy “were less likely to volunteer in WWII and more likely to marry within their ethnic group and to choose decidedly German names for their offspring. Rather than facilitating the assimilation of immigrant children, the policy instigated a backlash, heightening the sense of cultural identity among the minority.”

Certainly not all people hold themselves accountable to such high standards of intellectual openness and moderation. Some people hold radical and extremist views—the kinds of views that many people deem “offensive.” Nonetheless, the government should not interfere to restrict their freedom of expression. Indeed, instead of bringing about moderation in debate, a restrictive policy would have the exact opposite effect. For example, media personality Milo Yiannopoulos, who has made many well-known outrageous statements, sees himself not as a bigot but as a crusader of free speech in the age of political correctness.

As this is last article I am writing in The Chronicle for the foreseeable future, I would like to dedicate it to The Chronicle, Duke University and the Duke community as a sign of my gratefulness for their commitment to freedom of speech and intellectual excellence.

Throughout this past year, The Chronicle never censored any of my articles, even those that run most counter to the dominant liberal narrative on campus. The only time one editor called me to ask if I could modify some part of an article, he did so because one of my arguments was not well-articulated and backed by evidence—and he promptly offered advice on how to better it. The argument was minor to my overall thesis, so although it was also extremely controversial, this person effectively told me, “If you want to, you could pursue your research and write about it in a separate column.” The Duke community also was surprisingly open-minded. I expected my columns to be met with outrage; instead, people who disagreed with my views simply invited me to have conversations around them. Finally, I could clearly sense that Duke University remains committed to free speech.

Striving for the truth in a spirit of freedom: this is exactly the mission of a university. Keep up the good work, Duke.

Emile Riachi is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “the voice of dissent,” usually runs on alternate Wednesdays. 

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