Free Speech Is a More Complex Issue Than Its Proponents Claim

By Matthew Andersson

In a Letter to the Editor published on February 22, professor Jerry Coyne asserted that the Maroon Editorial Board must endorse free speech. Why? The Maroon has a long history of not only endorsing but also promoting, inviting, and hosting various expressions of free speech from students, faculty, alumni, and others. It takes controversial, often confrontational positions and is known broadly as one of the country’s oldest and finest student media platforms.

When Professor Coyne admonishes the Maroon’s editorial board for not endorsing free speech, he effectively asks The Maroon to ratify the University’s official position on this topic. As expressed in written documents, the University’s position appears to be not so much about ratifying the right to speak as it is about suppressing the instinct to speak out. This is a potential result of its articulated commitment to punish students (in the form of scholarship cancellation, academic probation, and expulsion) found in violation of its particular interpretations of acceptable behavior. 

Professor Coyne surely advances good counsel by recommending that students sustain tolerance and an open mind in the presence of others who they may disagree with (an added benefit for faculty and administration alike). Often, there is indeed much to learn. But in the case of professional provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, it would be difficult to imagine how his rights might actually be suppressed, especially among the numerous channels for expression he already enjoys.

In my experience, free speech philosophy isn’t so much an a priori position one needs to take, or a set of rules, guidelines, contracts, codes, or comportment. Rather, it’s a readiness to act, and a willingness to lead. If political issues provide students with an initial impetus to publicly engage, that is a pedagogically productive opportunity that may expand into broader, more complex civic issues in a student’s life, ranging from environmental challenges to armed conflict, and the general dangers that can emanate from authority. 

Students may make mistakes with speakers or cross the line occasionally, but that is a necessary step in the act of learning. Indeed, making mistakes is essential to the process of human growth and is the basis of the scientific method, which in many ways is a tenet of the “Chicago School.” As physicist and Nobel laureate John Wheeler said, “Our whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as we can.”

—Matthew Andersson, M.B.A. '96