If you’ve been reading Binghamton Review headlines, you’ll know that “crazed leftists” have been preventing conservative students from expressing their right to free speech by forming a “leftist mob.” However, if you look a little closer at the real story, you’ll recognize the headlines and statements for what they are: an attempt to spin events in conservatives’ favor.
On Nov. 18, protesters shut down an event hosted by Binghamton University College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation, who invited Arthur Laffer to speak on campus. If you’re familiar with Laffer, the most recent target of the “crazed leftists,” you may know that he was a key adviser to former President Ronald Reagan and an architect of the explosion in inequality that transpired under that administration. Does that sound like someone who’s at risk of having their free speech taken away by college students? Am I expected to believe that my freedoms, security and comfort are under threat from college protesters, and powerful and wealthy men like Laffer are my allies in this fight for free speech? I feel insulted by the suggestion that this could be true.
“Freedom of speech,” an inviolable principle of political democracy, has been turned into a political bludgeon by the political right. There is not a single student or student organization on campus that has the power to threaten the “freedom of speech” of someone like Laffer. Freedom of speech exists so that people like Laffer can be held accountable, not so that they can endlessly run the university lecture circuit. I was under the impression that student protest was considered a component of freedom of speech, and not evidence of “crazed leftism.”
When students yell, lack civility or use politically polarizing language, are they not exercising their right to freedom of speech? We may disagree politically and on what manner of action is appropriate to voice our views, but this disagreement is not one around the freedom of speech. Progressive student organizations on campus have their political views and goals, and clearly so do Turning Point USA (TPUSA) and College Republicans. Are we supposed to pretend these arguments will never result in protests, angry yelling or confrontation?
While the average BU student enjoys a relatively privileged lifestyle, it is important to remember that political decisions affect people’s lives. People like Laffer helped construct policies that hurt workers, while their superiors like Reagan went on racist rants behind closed doors. When Reagan dealt a death blow to the power of organized labor in America, the right did not protest the repression of their freedom of speech or right to strike. Rather, they celebrated the accomplishment of their political goal. When you choose to agitate for your political views, when you choose to bring archconservatives to campus, you have entered the sphere of public debate. I think that TPUSA and College Republicans should be allowed to say what they say. But I think if politics is to be understood as the serious matter it is, then rhetorical tricks using “free speech” as a bludgeon against “crazed leftists” should be off the table. Calling organized students “mobs” also strikes me as a deeply anti-democratic sentiment. If students of color, LGBTQ students and their allies see a reason to yell and protest, people should listen. Disagreement is a natural fact of political life and is protected by freedom of speech — which is exactly what protesting students were exercising.
John-Paul Keblinski is a junior double-majoring in sociology and geography.