Allow me to begin with a simple, but important point: Freedom of speech does not equate to freedom from speech. To quote esteemed former Associate Justice Louis Brandeis, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” If ever a place existed where the combined efforts of a community should be applied toward these sagacious words, it is on a university campus.
On Monday, Nov. 18, I went to see a talk by noted, if not minorly controversial, Reagan-era economist Arthur Laffer. For me, as a faculty member with an interest in policy and economics, it was a chance to hear a firsthand defense of “Trump, Tariffs, Trade Wars,” the talk’s central purpose and title. Let me be clear — I am strenuously opposed to tariffs and trade wars as economic policy, though I certainly recognize their value in international political policy. Yet, we live in a time of all three, and it seemed a worthy intellectual exercise to hear one of the chief architects of the current trade war defend his perspective. This is what an intellectual life is all about, and what the college experience affords the privileged few.
Instead, and I need not go into the details here as you can easily find them elsewhere, I was greeted upon my arrival by a boisterous crowd intent wholly on shutting down Laffer’s talk in the name of “free speech,” which demonstrators continually chanted. I’m not sure where the poisonous idea that free speech is the same thing as enforcing the silence of others’ speech came from, but for the first time in my seven years at Binghamton University, I have been forced to confront this idea head-on.
The U.S. Constitution was a paradox in its writing, one which simultaneously developed a revolutionary system of limited self-government and a particularly virulent system of institutionalized racism and slavery. As a society, we still have a long way to go to overcome the historical injustices that minority communities have suffered. Decades of policies at federal, state and local levels in the forms of redlining and eminent domain seizures, among a myriad of others, have deprived many communities of intergenerational wealth transfers and created today’s socioeconomic disparities. It is right for students to protest against racism; it is right for students to protest against the policies that perpetuate long-term inequities.
If the purpose of protesting Monday night was to highlight how the policies advocated by Laffer create economic inequalities, however, I didn’t personally hear it. I simply saw people intent on shutting down discussion and shutting down debate.
How do you protest against a policy if you don’t know what that policy’s defense is? How do you protest against racism if you don’t engage the nuance of people in government who craft the policies that you believe are racist? On the flip side, how do you create policies that help to bridge racial and socioeconomic divides if you shut yourself off to real-world economic policymakers? The list of unintended consequences from well-intentioned policies is long; frequently what seems like an “obvious” solution is really anything but, when put to the rigor of intellectual debate. This is why speech is so important.
I believe strongly in the BU community and I have never had a reason to doubt our respect for intellectualism and respect for the rights of all students, faculty and staff. I still have no reason to doubt it, because in the 24 hours since I tried to attend Laffer’s event, I have been engaged in truly wonderful and free discussions with people throughout campus. And that is what an intellectual community should do now — discuss openly and freely what happened, why it happened and how we as a community want to move forward. For me, the choice is obvious — more speech by more voices, attended and respected by more people.
Robert Holahan is an associate professor of environmental studies and political science.