Max Reichardt is a communication studies senior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.
The “Free Speech Wall,” erected annually on Dexter Lawn by the Cal Poly College Republicans, brings a host of inscriptions. Famous quotes, political expression, Venmo requests, artwork, memes and much more litter the wall. According to the club, the wall’s purpose is “to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall,” the toppling of the symbol of an overbearing government and the suppression of free speech.
Unfortunately, due to its physical prominence, notoriety and inherent anonymity, the wall attracts hateful and discriminatory comments. Often, what one person has written will be amended, crossed out or responded to by another, sometimes in a personal attack. The wall functions as an open forum and the anonymous nature of responses allows for the expression of controversial views; I think this is what College Republicans had in mind when designing it.
Therein lies the heart of the free speech debate. Though I resent many of the ideas expressed on the wall, it’s my right as a U.S. citizen to defend others’ right to say those terrible things. Perhaps this is a passive approach. People who are disenfranchised, typically the target of such speech, might resent this position because it appears to enable their disenfranchisement further.
There is indeed a slippery slope regarding the allowance of divisive or hateful “free” speech that goes unchallenged merely for the sake of “freedom.” That is why I argue for basic human respect before all else.
While we have the right to say and feel horrible things, we also have the choice to honestly reconsider our values and beliefs, to allow for civil disagreement on grounds of mutual respect and a want for understanding. In discussions we should recognize hegemony and subjugation of different groups.
We must see that their experiences contribute to their viewpoint, and we must not feel guilty about who we are in relation to another societal group. “Black Lives Matter” and “It’s okay to be white,” both of which were written on the wall, are not mutually exclusive ideas. That only touches on the topic of race relations — not to mention religious understanding, LGBTQIA+ understanding, political bipartisanship, combating sexism, classism and many others.
I think our freedom of speech exists both for the defense of our own views and for the discourse necessary for opposing viewpoints to understand each other a little better. As we approach Thanksgiving, some tense arguments at the dinner table are bound to happen. As we know, sometimes it’s impossible to change someone’s mind on a topic but persuasion should not always be the end goal.
I believe a basic respect for others and their viewpoints (if they aren’t deliberately violent or emotionally/psychologically harmful) goes a long way toward understanding and the possibility of persuasion.
I believe we have an obligation to protect the right to express whatever we choose, however offensive or hurtful some speech or expression may be. For this debate and arguments surrounding other amendments, such as the Second, I advise everyone to read the actual text of the Constitution and make their own judgment about its contents.
Rather than relying on second-hand accounts that may or may not be fueled by an agenda, we owe it to ourselves to read and interpret the Constitution like the (hopefully) educated, critical-thinking people we are.
Straight from the National Archives, the First Amendment to the Constitution reads thus: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Regardless of the debate on constitutional interpretation — read Justice Thurgood Marshall’s 1987 take on why it is a “living document” — we can see the intentions of our founding fathers.
However, for the sake of this freedom, we must respect each other, especially on campus.
“One of the primary missions of a university is to be better – to set an example of civil discussion, to use critical thinking, to acquire knowledge and an appreciation of diversity,” President Jeffrey Armstrong wrote in a campuswide email Oct. 30. The only way we can combat the hatred on that wall is by engaging each other respectfully.
Ultimately, we must seek understanding. Otherwise our hopes for equity and actualization are as ephemeral as the wall itself.