“In those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call anything his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”–Benjamin Franklin
When I think of a totalitarian society, my mind conjures the image of thugs in jackboots goose-stepping in columns while crowds roar zealously with approval. As I dwell on this image, the accompanying question is always the same: How does this happen? While the answer to that question is nebulous, it at least takes a certain conditioning to reach that level of depravity. Those in Authority must co-opt the truth and warp it into any self-serving falsehood that will deceive the public. Likewise, there must be those who accept the falsehoods without scrutiny, or are too apathetic to contest them.
That conditioning takes many forms, not the least of which is censorship of people in public places. You may not think that there is a link between suppressing dissidence and the campus free speech zone, but I agree with Madison when he said, “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” In a society such as ours, any usurpations must be gradual, lest they provoke a public backlash.
Am I saying that proponents of Free Speech Zones have nefarious designs on their country? In most cases, the answer is no. The question must be asked though, What are the unforseen effects of this concept? The University in particular is supposed to be the place where all ideas may be freely exchanged and evaluated; the individuals themselves are to be vested with the power of judging an idea’s validity. If campus authorities should have the power to install a valve on every student with which they can turn speech on and off at their leisure, how is that valve uninstalled after they graduate? Moreover, if someone does one day have nefarious designs on this country, will they be able to exploit this widespread fallacy that “There are just some places where you shouldn’t speak your mind”? Today’s redactions pave the way for tomorrow’s repressions.
If we today, with the weight of the Bill of Rights on our side, are not prepared to openly question anyone who purports to be in Authority, who then serves as their counterbalance? All Free societies ail from inadequate defenses, but their fate is sealed when that defense ceases. To draw on a historical analogy, it has been said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the renowned British college. I say to you that a future Battle for America could be lost on the grounds of her colleges, where truth is not in the eye of the beholder, but rather in that of the beholden.
“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”–Benjamin Franklin