In 1758, famous French philosopher, Claude-Adrien Helvetius, published a contentious book called “De l’esprit”or“On the Mind.”The work ignited an abundance of disparaging remarks and drew attention from around Europe due to its mentioning of heresy, as well as, its criticism of renowned lawyer and political philosopher, Montesquieu. From the son of the King of France, to acclaimed female writer Madame de Graffigny, daunting condemnations of “De l’esprit” continued to unfold. The unceasing and merciless comments attracted famous French writer, Voltaire, who despite abhor- ring the work, advocated for Helvetius right to freedom of speech. “I detest what you write,”Voltaire said about Helvetius, “but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”
Today, college campuses through- out the nation are struggling to uphold the privilege that people like Voltaire, as well as our founding fathers, fought to defend. The right to freedom of speech was enacted in the United States in 1791, along with other first amendment liber- ties, like freedom of religion and freedom of press. These ideals that we hold true to our hearts enable us to give voice to our beliefs. But, it is becoming more and more evident that our right to freedom of speech is being subdued by varying opinions. Recently, conservative political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos arranged for a four-day “free-speech week” at University of California, Berkeley. The week consisted of speakers like Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter, and other well-known right- wing individuals to lecture on cam- pus and articulate their views and political thoughts. However, after extreme hostility from UC Berkeley students, the free speech event was cancelled. Not only did students deem such discourse from conservative speakers as “hate-speech” but they also said it would be mentally and emotionally displeasing. Au- burn University has also experienced its fair share of free speech tension. Before alt-right Richard Spencer could even begin his speech at Auburn, a fist fight broke out between anti-fascist (AntiFa) protestors and right-wing conservatives. Days before Richard Spencer was arranged to speak at the university, the administration attempted to cancel his event, fearing that it would cause tension on campus. However, a federal court overruled such an endeavor, saying that it would be in violation of Spencer’s First Amendment rights.
Institutions throughout the nation now fear that violence will erupt between students as a result of differing opinions. Universities are supposed to question and challenge our beliefs and viewpoints on public policy, religion, race and more in order to empower intellectual progress. The termination of free speech events simply because the dialogue is predicted to be offensive sets a certain precedent on college campuses. Controversial discussion is needed to fuel critical thinking. Without varying points of view, we cannot understand, debate and advance our society.
The United States contains a wide array of dissimilar viewpoints
from people all over the world, of different religions, backgrounds and experiences. Naturally, people will disagree. And, in turn, those contrasting opinions will lead to outrage. However, infringing on someone’s right to voice their views, especially on college campuses, is not beneficial to our growth. As young, developing minds, we should welcome contentious topics and speakers in order to gain awareness and expand our inquisitive behavior.
Voltaire’s encouragement of free speech arose at a time when it was considered disgraceful to speak out against popular opinion. In his perspective, just because some- thing was deemed offensive does not mean it should be restricted. That same viewpoint should be advocated today, especially when our First Amendment rights are be- ing overlooked. Intolerance for the exchange of ideas between college students has grown precipitously from campus to campus. Despite what you believe about one side having moral grounds for protest, everybody has the privilege to voice their concerns, beliefs and opinions, whether or not it o ends you. Alleged “hate-speech” is protected by the constitution under our First Amendment, however, harassing and violently attacking those whose views are different from yours is not.