By GLENN EISENBERG
Members of our campus community have been flinging around the terms “freedom of speech” and “censorship” without much thought to what they truly entail—rendering them nothing more than buzzwords and diminishing their actual meaning.
In her Opinion article in the November 17th edition of the Signal, College Union Board President, Raquel Fleig, alleges: “There is no way around it — not allowing this event to take place is censorship.”
Before I get angry comments on the Perspective website, I want to stress that this article is not meant to be a condemnation of Tucker Max—although I think he is deserving of it. I simply want to address what “free speech” really means because I have often seen the term misused in my time here at the College.
Last semester, a Facebook group entitled “TCNJ for Free Speech: Bring Tucker Max” was created for all of Tucker Max’s supporters at TCNJ to discuss why he is not actually that offensive. The title of the group and much of the rhetoric floating around Max’s controversy has raised some eyebrows. Free speech? What does “free speech” have to do with anything?
“Free speech,” as defined by the First Amendment, is the concept by which one can voice an opinion without fear of reprisal from the government. Certainly, “freedom of speech” can be invoked outside of the context of strictly state actors. For example, “whistleblower” legislation allows one the right to alert authorities if one’s employer is violating a law, without the threat of being fired.
However, there is one consistent vein that connects all encroachments of free speech. The impediment comes from an individual or institution with authority over those whose rights are being violated.
The students, faculty, and organizations on campus standing in opposition to Tucker Max are no more violating anyone’s free speech than I would be if I asked a friend to stop talking about a particular subject. None of the actors in this situation have any meaningful authority over CUB.
Fleig, in her article, states, “To demand that we pull funding for this event due to protest would contradict the values of the campus in support of free expression.” A “demand” is only restrictive insofar as it holds some degree of authority.
Who exactly was CUB accusing of censorship? Was it the petitioning organizations? As the Signal rightfully pointed out in their November 17th editorial, to suggest that petitioning a club is somehow censorship is idiotic. Was it a pre-emptive swipe at the College administration—out of fear that they would interfere despite the fact that, according to Fleig, President Gitenstein also views the situation as censorship? Or was it simply a reaction to the situation in general—saying that criticizing CUB’s choice was somehow censorship? Regardless, none of these scenarios have any relation to “free speech.”
Even if an institution with binding authority restricted CUB’s actions, there are still a multitude of factors to consider before labeling the situation as “censorship”—the content of Max’s lecture, the fact that the students of TCNJ are involuntarily paying Max, etc.
The misuse of terms like “free speech” undermines their tremendous importance. This article serves as my plea to the TCNJ community to stop saying that opposing a speaker through petitions, protests, etc. is somehow a violation of freedom of speech. As someone who is passionate about the preservation of civil liberties, I can assure you that it is not.
GLENN EISENBERG is president of the American Civil Liberties Union of TCNJ