Unraveling our misunderstanding about free speech

Caitlin Borgman, ACLU director of Montana, gives a lecture on free speech in college in Bozeman. Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. Photo by Annika Serniotti
Dr. Franke Wilmer, head of the MSU Poli-Sci department, reacts during a lecture about free speech in college in Bozeman. Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. Photo by Annika Serniotti

In the first of a three part series, the MSU library partnering with both the Political Science and History/Philosophy departments held Constitution Day, focused around free speech, and its applicability in public universities. Held in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Building on Sept. 19, MSU invited Caitlin Borgmann, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Montana, as well as Mike Dembek, a philosophy major. April Francis, representing the History department and Anna Slown, a political science major were also invited. The speakers came in order to “spark a conversation” about the controversial subject of free speech, which has gained recent attention from the Berkley and Charlottesville protests. Borgmann has been with the ACLU for multiple years now working on civil liberty issues including free speech, the right to assembly, right to a free press and religious freedoms.


Borgmann’s presentation went beyond powerpoint slides, encouraging an open discussion. She frequently asked for input from those attending, with questions like, “why do you believe free speech is such a controversial topic?”


Borgmann explained how the topic of free speech was not a black and white issue. She mentioned situations like protests outside abortion clinics, two separate high school incidents here in Montana where confederate flags were being used in different ways and even a situation including our very own “Yelling Preacher” frequently present on the mall. In every case mentioned there were multiple people expressing their rights, and those who believed their rights had been violated.


Francis summed up the discussion best reciting a quote from Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” She finished: “refusing to listen to what other people have to say simply because we disagree with them is not the answer. If we try to silence those that we disagree with, they are not going to quiet down, instead they’re going to pursue alternative avenues of making their thoughts heard.”