Free Expression and the Right to Protest

Black lives matter

I have been in more online meetings than I can count since the pandemic started. Zoom, Teams, Webex, Adobe Connect, and a few other platforms I can't recall. While some of these meetings seemed like little more than an opportunity for the hosts to promote themselves or combat feelings of boredom, there has been an upside to this pandemic. I have attended many online meetings that I would have missed out on if they had been face-to-face. Many were scheduled at times that would have been inconvenient, especially with the travel that would have been necessary to get there. Others would have been held in locations that would have deterred me from attending. The online format has really opened things up, and I am certain I will miss it.

Some of the recent meetings I've attended have tackled difficult but necessary subjects like police brutality, institutional racism, and the importance of activism in this moment. In one such meeting, I found myself listening intently as a young Black college student described what it was like for her and many other Black students on our campus to see the small group of determined White people from the community showing up every week to protest the university's decision to stop flying the state (Confederate) flag. They've been holding these protests every week for several months in a high-visibility area, waving Confederate flags and so on.

As I listened to her, I could hear the pain in her voice. She described what the flag meant to her and many of the other Black students. While their reactions varied, it sounded like all could agree that the protests were distracting them from learning and were upsetting on many levels. A common theme was that the flag is a powerful symbol that told them they didn't belong. Given that they were here in college to learn, this didn't sound good. At one point, I found myself thinking about ancestors of Holocaust victims being required to walk through a gauntlet where protestors waved Nazi flags and jeered. Would it be reasonable to expect them to ignore it? How about Native Americans? Should they be expected to ignore the Washington Redskins? And what would it say about the rest of us if we suggested they should ignore it? The more I listened, the more I noticed myself nodding. I agreed with everything that came out of her mouth. I felt angrier by the minute, but I was also proud of her for expressing herself so well.

It was at that point that everything suddenly came crashing down. She insisted that the protestors must be forcibly removed from campus and prevented from returning. What? I must have misheard her. She had just been telling us about how she and several other students had participated in a Black Lives Matter protest on campus. But then she repeated what she had said about how we needed to remove the flag protestors. I had not misheard her. It was okay for her to protest; it was not okay for those with whom she disagreed to do so. And in that horrible moment, she lost me.

To be clear, I don't blame her for wanting the flag protestors to leave. I think we all do. Passersby have no way of knowing that most of them are not affiliated with the university, and they make us look horrible. They are a source of distraction for students and faculty, and I think they upset many people. Of course, I recognize that the intensity of the upset is likely to be much worse for persons of color and that I am necessarily limited in the degree to which I can understand what it is like. It brings me no joy that they must be subjected to that sort of thing. And yet, they must be subjected to it as long as anybody has the right to protest in that location. That's how this free speech thing works.

Everyone is fond of exercising their own right to free speech; it is when others do the same that the problems begin. Like it or not, the only test of our commitment to free speech that matters is whether we stand up for it when it involves speech we regard as objectionable. The flag protestors, as despicable as they may be, have the legal right to be there. That doesn't mean that anybody has to pay attention to them. It also doesn't mean that there can't be counter-protests. But it does mean that we don't get to run them off, ban them from public areas, assault them, or arrest them when they haven't broken any laws. If we can protest, they can protest.

I know this is difficult stuff and that emotions often run high when thinking about it. I'm not immune to this. Seeing these flag-waving morons pisses me off too. But I have to admit that hearing this bright young college student repeatedly insist that the way to solve the problem was to take someone else's rights away because we didn't like what they were saying was demoralizing. Had this been an isolated example, it would have been easy to overlook. Unfortunately, it seems that many young people do not value others' right to free expression, at least not to the extent necessary to prevent them from trying to abolish it.

Cancel culture is bad enough, but this young woman wanted the university police to forcibly remove the protestors and prevent their return. I am not sure she realized that there are almost certainly a handful of White students on our campus who would like to see the police forcibly remove the Black Lives Matter protestors instead. Neither should happen. We don't have to like what someone else is saying. We don't have to listen to it, and we can choose to speak out against it. But we do have to let them say it. And if we value free expression and want to preserve the right to protest, we must allow others to exercise the same rights we want for ourselves.