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April 12, 2024

Letter to the Editor: Conservatives continue to misunderstand the meaning of free speech

By MADDIE KING | October 12, 2017

In response to “Conservative views are unfairly silenced on campus,” published on October 5:

Dear Editor,

Given the unending media fixation surrounding this topic, I suppose it was only a matter of time before The News-letter published an OpEd on the supposed persecution of conservatives on liberal college campuses. While I took issue with most of James O’Donnell’s article, I was particularly struck by O’Donnell’s preposterous assertion that “open political dialogue has existed in this nation for nearly 250 years “, and that by making it “socially acceptable to use violence to shut down different opinions” “liberals have caused far more detriment to… free speech than conservatives”. Every part of that statement is untrue.

Truly open political dialogue has never existed. For most of America’s 250-year history, political participation was illegal for the majority of its citizens and the use of violence to silence the opinions of marginalized people was not only socially acceptable, it was standard practice. After the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, black men were prevented from exercising their right to vote through organized campaigns of state sanctioned violence.

In the 1960s, the FBI conducted a series of covert (and often violent and illegal) projects called COINTELPRO that harassed, intimidated, falsely imprisoned and even assassinated left wing organizations and individuals like socialists, Civil Rights leaders, and Puerto Rican nationalists, In recent years, Republicans across the country have introduced new laws that aim to criminalize peaceful protest- one particularly absurd proposal demanded that no DAPL protesters reimburse the state for police overtime expenses.   

While professors and college students may seem overwhelmingly liberal, they’re rarely able to protect academic freedom from coercive political influence. When Owen Lattimore, a Hopkins professor at the Walter Hines Page School of International Relations (the precursor to SAIS), was accused of being a “known communist”, the University not only fired him, they disbanded his whole department. More recently, Harvard rescinded Chelsea Manning’s visiting fellowship due to pressure from the CIA and UC Berkeley bowed to political pressure and cancelled a class in the middle of the semester for discussing Palestine as a settler colony.

Ultimately, O’Donnell fails to understand that access to free speech has always been conditional upon its content and source. When speech challenges existing power dynamics it becomes dangerous to those whose interests lie in the preservation of the status quo. White supremacists march mask-less in our streets because they have no reason to fear retribution. They pose no threat to a nation forged from the foundation of white supremacy.

To pretend that the right to free speech is under fire for the first time in American history because of snide looks, snarky memes and peer pressure is absurd and quite frankly offensive to the thousands of Americans throughout history who have lost their lives for daring to speak out against the status quo. Protection of civil liberties and the right to voice dissent are crucial prerequisites for a just and democratic society, but by framing free speech as a question of interpersonal relations instead of power relations, conservatives continue to misunderstand its meaning and significance. 

Madeleine King

Hopkins Class of 2017

Correction: The original author of this piece was identified as "Madeleine Esme", her correct last name is King. The News-Letter regrets this error.

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