Free speech is not a free pass

Opinion by Lily Zheng
April 21, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

I don’t even know why we’re still talking about free speech.

There are so many things going on right now at Stanford: poor mental health resources, inadequately-paid PHEs, a lack of faculty diversity and poor conditions for workers on campus, to name just a few. Our campus is a complex and chaotic mix of student organizing, glacial reforms and decentralized departments, programs and organizations all figuring out their own way through this institution. Of course, you get a different picture of campus issues depending on where you get your media from – if you read The Stanford Review, for example, you might be more concerned about free speech and the “antidemocratic cabal of activists” seeking to silence and destroy “those who want to give Stanford freedom.” Or, perhaps, you might interact with leftists, progressives or activists in such a terrifying way that you would liken the political climate of our campus to “any military regime in Latin America [where] those who threatened the military disappeared.”

The free speech debate these days is our modern-day domino theory, in which the rise of “political correctness” harkens the death of free speech, the complete destruction of meaningful conversation and dialogue and the end of intellectual vitality as we know it.

For reference, the definition of free speech as stated by the First Amendment is as follows:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It would be easy to see where the doom and gloom comes from if this constitutional right were indeed being denied to people. But this definition isn’t what most people mean when they talk about the attack on free speech. They’re not thinking of police raids or tracking devices or a surveillance state – instead, they recall commencement speakers deciding not to speak after student protests and anti-LGBTQ conferences having their funding requests denied. They blame liberals, activists, progressives or the radical left for infringing on our rights. It is our right, they might say, to say whatever we like and have it be listened to.  

But the right to free speech does not give us the right to automatically have the respect of others, or immunity from the consequences of our actions. On some level, we know that – we crave that freedom, but shrink from the possible repercussions. Isn’t that the exact reason why we use Yik Yak?

There’s another major argument that I haven’t addressed yet, and that’s the issue of certain kinds of statements being shut down or dismissed by default – which many see as having a negative effect on conversation, communication, dialogue or debate. It’s not up for debate whether or not it happens; it does. Hell, I do it all the time. Dismissing (or censoring) speech is seen by some as indicative of a liberal intolerance, where arbitrary ideas are attacked for no reason other than a difference in normative opinion.

But here’s an alternate explanation: Maybe some ideas or opinions just aren’t valuable.

Many of us learn at a young age the importance of our opinions, the inviolability of that mantra, “we are taught how to think, not what to think.” We learn that “controversial” topics have no clear answers and debate them at length in every stage of our education – maybe slavery was a good thing. Maybe the death penalty is optimal. Maybe LGBTQ+ people are unnatural and immoral. The sweeping impartiality with which we regard the issues of our past and present gives us the illusion that our opinions are valuable only to the extent in which we can rationally argue them. We learn to play devil’s advocate and that “pathos” is a dirty way to argue, that invoking suffering and sadness is a strategy only used by those who have no “substantial” argument to make and that nothing is off-limits – not even our basic humanity.

The free speech debate, for me, boils down to the recognition that not all opinions are equal.  When intense and complex discussions on identity politics, collective liberation, institutional change, decolonization and other critical praxes are taking place, there is a minimum requirement to get on the ride.  We need to understand how multilayered systems shaped by history affect the people, organizations and institutions we have today.  We need to understand the ways in which our decisions have micro- and macro- effects on our sociopolitical environments. Are activists censoring people they disagree with to stifle intellectual vitality? Hardly. If I had to pick a reason, it’d be that we’ve finally taken enough shit to be tired of it.


Contact Lily Zheng at [email protected].


Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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