Free Speech at a Price

There have beenĀ a series of controversial speaking events organized across US campuses (campii?) Controversy has ranged from the garden variety protesters interrupting speakers they didn’t like, to university authorities threatening to arrest invited speakers if they dared offer a lecture on … free speech.

Shouting down a speaker in an auditorium has a long-standing history; and up until recently in the US was (and to a large extent, still is in the developed word) frowned upon. Interrupting a speaker invited to expound on even the most controversial subjects with chants, jeers and insults, would lead to a very firm and sometimes not polite invitation to leave. Free speech, after all, is a two-way street: having the right to say what you want implies you respect the the right of others to say what they want.

For some Universities, however, the quote often erroneously attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is no longer a cherished principle. (It was actually by Evelyn Beatrice Hall.)

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Now, there is ample room for a debate on what exactly constitutes hate speech, but given the confrontational nature of these incidents, Universities have taken action. Most of their action has been towards mitigating confrontation instead of guaranteeing the rights of speakers. Many universities have taken to including significantly more security at these controversial – and almost universally right-leaning – events, not to protect the event from interruption or infringement by agitatorsĀ as has been the case twice for DePaul University, but to simply do… well, it’s not clear what, since security just stands around while people hurl abuse at one another.

The cost for this extra security is being transferred to the organizers, effectively demanding more money for certain people to be able to speak at the campus. While some speakers are allowed to present virtually for free, for others University administrators are demanding charges up to the five-digit range for “security”.

The practical result of the increase price for security is that only groups that can afford the cost can bring speakers. This means that organizers are being forced to cancel events because of the prohibitive cost – turning over the “free speech” arena to those with more monetary backing. Effectively, as the price demanded by administrators rises, only the rich will be able to afford to express themselves in academia.

The pernicious incentive here, of course, is that agitators not only can effectively shut down events they disagree with by interrupting, but by doing it often enough, they can effectively shut down certain speakers and ideas permanently. Unless they can raise enough money for their ideas to not be censored.

Once again, the all-mighty dollar comes to control ideas. It’s lamentable that the institutions charged with education are the ones leading the charge towards implementing the idea that opinions can only be held at a price.

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