Freedom of speech is one of the most cherished rights in the United States. However, it seems that many do not understand what it truly means, and why it is important.
It is not surprising that members of the campus community throw out the term “free speech” so liberally, when we see a person such as radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger claim violation of her freedom of speech when she felt public pressure after aggressively repeating racial epithets on the air.
College Republicans / Ann Coulter, December 2008 & February 2009
In the fall semester of 2008, the College Republicans decided to bring controversial political pundit, Ann Coulter, to speak in Kendall Hall. As expected, many on campus were disturbed by the College Republicans’ invitation of such a divisive and deeply offensive figure, as well as the event’s $22,800 price tag.
Angered students formed a movement against Coulter, and organized a walk-out protest during her February 18th lecture. They then proceeded to Brower Student Center to hold a rally, where students spoke openly about their opinions of current events, and Coulter herself.
The lecture quickly became a large campus controversy, and predictably, the topic of “free speech” and what constitutes a “free speech” issue arose. Many defenders of Coulter’s visit invoked the First Amendment when arguing against the movement.
TCNJ alumnus S. Lee Whitesell made a statement in opposition to the student movement: “I am not exactly sure what hate speech means or why it would not be protected by the First Amendment,” [The Signal – Opinion piece, March 4th]. Many College Republicans and other Coulter supporters echoed this sentiment, deriding the campus left for only supporting freedom of speech when it suits liberal interests.
However, many believed that this argument was irrational and reflected a lack of knowledge regarding the first amendment, as the campus left did defend Coulter’s right to express herself — and had no plans to prevent the lecture from taking place. Instead, they countered what they viewed as hate speech with a more productive and tolerant discussion.
Born-Again Evangelicals, September 2009 & April 2010
In fall 2009, and again in spring 2010, the campus was visited by two born-again Christians who identified themselves as Greg and Robert. The men hoisted a large sign which read, “WARNING: GOD HATERS, FORNICATORS, DRUNKS, MOCKERS, ADULTERERS, GREEDY, THIEVES, LIARS, HOMOSEXUALS, JUDGEMENT” and boomed homophobic, misogynistic, and generally hateful rhetoric. The men espoused the following: it would serve homosexuals better to commit suicide than live as homosexuals, women should stay in the home, and President Obama puts people in concentration camps, among other detestable views.
Both visits were met with large impromptu counter-demonstrations, primarily by LGBT students and allies. Few students openly voiced support for the two men. However, some of the campus Christian community, most notably members of the Protestant Bible Fellowship, did admit privately – when confronted – that they did agree with Greg and Robert on some issues, though they did not agree with the way in which the men presented their beliefs.
Outside of the small and quiet minority of Greg and Robert defenders, an overwhelming majority expressed support and admiration for the protesters. No students openly invoked “free speech” in defense of the two men — not even those who so forcefully used the argument of “free speech” in defense of Coulter — campus acknowledged Greg and Robert’s freedom to speak. Instead, protesters used the bigoted rhetoric to build the LGBT equality movement on campus, garnering support for the National Equality March that followed a few short weeks later.
It seemed as though the campus had a better understanding of what freedom of speech truly meant. However, the controversies have continued.
CUB / Tucker Max, January 2010
In fall 2010, the College Union Board invited humorist Tucker Max to campus to give a lecture. Max, author of I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, is known best for his offensive shock humor, often focusing on excessive partying and reckless sexual escapades. He has spoken lightheartedly about rape and other forms of exploitating women, and has denied the value of the lives of people with disabilities. Max, like Coulter, cost TCNJ approximately $25,000. Campus was again divided.
This time, however, the controversy was not along political lines. The College Republicans and the College Democrats co-wrote a letter to CUB, requesting they reconsider bringing Max. The Office of Anti-Violence Initiatives led a petition drive, expressing to CUB the widespread opposition to Max’s brand of humor.
Supporters of Tucker Max’s visit started a Facebook group entitled “TCNJ for Free Speech: Bring Tucker Max.” Again, “free speech” had become nothing more than a buzz-word to deflect criticism from controversial decisions.
Then-CUB President Raquel Fleig alleged in an Opinion piece [November 17th edition, The Signal]: “There is no way around it — not allowing this event to take place is censorship.” Fleig also claimed that TCNJ President Barbara Gitenstein also believed the Tucker Max controversy was a matter of “free speech.” But the CUB President failed to provide context in which Gitenstein made this claim.
President Gitenstein told The Perspective in December 2009: “The decision to invite Tucker Max is CUB’s alone and it would not have been censorship had they decided NOT to invite him, but it would be censorship for me to substitute my judgment for theirs and bar him from campus. It is, of course, perfectly acceptable, for those members of the community who are offended by Tucker Max’s attitudes and language to express their feelings, as long as that expression takes a constructive and non-violent form.”
None of the petitioning organizations requested Gitenstein cancel the lecture, but merely encouraged CUB to reconsider his visit. CUB did eventually re-poll the student body, with what some considered to be an unfair poll weighted in their favor, and ultimately stuck to their plan of bringing Max.
The opposition to Tucker Max countered the lecture by holding an event entitled “Celebrate Women.” This lecture was met with a modest protest.