America strives to be a bastion of free thought and expression, the primary marker of a free society, and we were recently reminded of this in a vile display of hate at the University of Virginia, a great public institution.
Ohio State, another great public institution, recently reminded us that free speech isn’t necessarily safe with its new policy that, in effect, prohibits students from hanging items in their dorm-room windows.
In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, three things must be remembered; two obvious, the other not so much. First, hatred and bigotry must be countered every step of the way with messages of compassion and love. The 9 percent of Americans, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, that call neo-Nazis’ views acceptable, while alarmingly high, are no match for a united 91 percent of Americans that call it for what it is. Second, calls for violence are not protected speech. There is no room in our political discourse, or in American society, for a call for the extermination of a race or for violent demonstrations against ethnic or political groups.
And finally, we must allow those vile, reprehensible human beings to speak; we must allow these people to voice their moronic beliefs. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., dissenting in Abrams v. United States (1919), wrote of the marketplace of ideas theory the First Amendment embodies: “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
All speech must enter the marketplace of ideas to be judged by the American people to be truth or asinine. We must trust the American people to know which beliefs are just and which are not. If we do not; if we seek to limit speech we find reprehensible, we find ourselves agreeing with an ideology those neo-Nazis want to reinstate. The only way to fight hateful speech is with compassionate speech.
This brings me to the issue at hand: Ohio State’s recent policy that says dorm room windows can’t be obstructed and university window covers must be visible from the outside, which effectively bans all student signage in dorm windows.
What does “Donald Trump wears cargo shorts,” written in Post-it Notes on a window have to do with neo-Nazis? It is a fair question, but one that misses the entire point. The university banning expression in dorm windows is a short step away from banning messages altogether in dorms, or maybe even on The Oval. While many of us would choose to miss the few days each semester when we are peppered with pictures of unborn fetuses from demonstrators on The Oval, it is important to remember the earlier point — the best way to fight speech you disagree with is more speech, not less.
Perhaps you are now thinking they won’t ban speech on campus. They can’t, right? Wrong. Last year, while campaigning for a seat on the Franklin County Democratic Party’s Central Committee, I was told I could not canvas at the turnaround by the Ohio Union due to university regulation, which said I had to reserve a spot in advance. I had to sue the university to assert my right to campaign on campus for an office that represented campus.
Unfortunately, I fell short in the election, and with the university unwilling to change its policies for all students, I dismissed the case, for I was no longer running. But the fact remains that these policies are still in place, and they can be used against anyone trying to be heard, especially students. As Justice Abe Fortas wrote in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969): “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
To the Editor: Will you speak up?
To those who no longer live in the dorms, I’ll spare you the oft-quoted Martin Niemöller poem, “First They Came for the Socialists.” I just invite you to remember this moment when the university decides to issue further regulations. To those who live in the dorms, I say hang anything you want. In fact, hang a copy of the Bill of Rights; and maybe Post-it Notes underneath with the message, “I dare you.”