Defending Free Speech on Campus: Why Aggression isn’t the Answer

Few things seem to spread faster than the rumor of something scandalous on a university campus. Texts are sent between students, words and accusations are whispered in hushes at the back of lecture halls, and postings on social media are quick to condone or condemn those involved.

 

Such urgent and frantic communication was the case this Tuesday after a Christian evangelist, Shawn “the Baptist” Holes, was assaulted with pepper spray while preaching on campus.

 

According to Holes, he had been speaking for about 10 minutes on the south side of Montana Hall just before noon, when a young man in a hooded black sweatshirt approached him. Though he was able to mostly duck out of the way, Holes was hit with the pepper spray on his head and neck. According to MSUPD, a second person was also hit during the incident.

 

Within minutes of the attack, campus was rife with speculations about who committed the assault and whether or not it was deserved or justified.

 

Legally there is absolutely no question. If the pepper-spray-wielder is identified and caught, he would likely be charged with assault and could face up to six months of jail time and $500 in fines. But the question remains in the potential justification for such actions, and their larger ramifications on campus.

 

Let’s be clear: this is not something to condone on any level. To attack a man for exercising his First Amendment rights is to sink below dignity and the threshold of discourse. It is childish, inhumane, and disrespectful to self and institution — even if what that man is saying is morally repugnant.

 

The beauty of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech clause is that they are completely undiscerning. Protected speech covers everything from newspaper editorials to bumper stickers, from love poems to soapbox rants. Though some may use their First Amendment rights to express bigotry and hate, many others use them for benevolence, including on college campuses everyday.

 

A newspaper, such as this one, uses the First Amendment to spread information without fear of interference and censorship. Any church or person may use the freedom of religion clause to practice their beliefs free from prosecution. Students and professors, either through protest, petition or speech, can use their rights to question the administration and demand their perspective be heard.

 

A university campus should stand as a bastion of free speech. After all, the celebration and exchanging of ideas are what university is about — especially on this campus.

 

This is the campus that met a Westboro Baptist Church protest last year with peace rallies gathering thousands of people from Bozeman and the surrounding areas. At this institution we disagree with words and ideas, not attacks and assaults. We hold ourselves to a higher standard here, and no matter if the attacker in this case is a MSU student or not, these actions besmirch us all by association.  Pepper spraying a man expressing his rights, whether he is wrong or right, fanatic or moderate, contradicts what this campus is about, and we must not applaud the actions.

 

A right is important when you are the one utilizing it, but it’s even more important when you disagree with someone else’s application of it. And standing up for someone’s right to speak when you despise their message is much more difficult and admirable than assault. As Oscar Wilde said, “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”

 

As always, I can be reached for question and comments at editor@exponent.montana.edu