Opinions, Op-Ed

Professor Melnick is Right, We Have a Free Speech Problem … So Now What?

R. Shep Melnick—the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. professor of American politics—recently submitted an op-ed to The Heights titled “Our Free Speech Problem.” In his op-ed, Melnick observes the “disturbing” reality that “too many students are afraid to discuss controversial topics, and a significant minority think they are justified in preventing those they disagree with from speaking on campus.” In response to this unfortunate reality, Melnick suggests that faculty make a concerted effort to facilitate civil conversation. In addition, he recommends that the University eliminate “micro-aggression” education, endorse the University of Chicago’s statement of principles on free speech expression, and sponsor a major address by a free speech advocate.

Although not all of my peers might agree with Melnick’s prescriptions for our free speech problem, I think the vast majority of us would agree that there is indeed a free speech problem on campus (as in the nation at large). The question that we must now confront is how exactly to respond to this problem.

Although students, faculty, and administrators must all be involved in thoughtfully responding to a problem for which we are all responsible, we students are the ones who create our campus culture. Consequently, solving our free speech problem must ultimately start, and end, with us.

As I have thought about ways that we can improve our campus climate, I have often returned to my experience in the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC). Although UGBC should be commended in many respects for the advocacy initiatives it undertakes and the programming it sponsors, UGBC’s culture is far more disagreeable and unwelcoming of dialogue than what should be expected of a student government organization—especially one managed by “student leaders.” 

It is with no exaggeration when I say that there is no space at BC more poorly suited for civil dialogue about contentious issues than in UGBC. 

Take, for instance, last year’s infamous impeachment trial, initiated by then-President Christian Guma’s posting of a statement on social media in response to an allegedly racially motivated incident on campus. Unsurprisingly, what should have been an objective inquiry into whether the president met the constitutional criteria for impeachment turned into a debate about whether someone of certain racial and gender identities should be able to make a statement about issues primarily impacting those of different identities. Indeed, as recorded in a Feb. 8 Heights article, one of the impeachment resolution’s sponsors noted her “frustrati[on]” that Guma’s statement undermined the work of other members of UGBC, “not to mention that it was the opinion of a white man.” 

This comment about Guma’s racial and gender identity demonstrates how “diversity, equity, and inclusion”—as Melnick implicitly suggests—are often at the heart of efforts to stymie free speech. Though Guma is a “white man,” those truly interested in promoting a diverse and inclusive campus should have recognized that if there is an affront to any student or student group’s identity, that affront impacts our entire student community. This is not to say that an event on campus cannot particularly impact one student or student group’s identity more than that of others, but rather that we should all, irrespective of background, want to support those around us, including those who appear to be different. 

This comment was not isolated or unordinary. For example, another student criticized Guma’s response to the incident because, “as a person of color,” this student believed that “the statement was offensive.” 

Being offended by someone’s speech, regardless of its content, is not grounds for immediately attempting to remove someone from a public leadership position. This is especially true when that individual apologizes for the speech and indicates that there was a genuine misunderstanding from the outset that he or she can learn from. This, however, is not a view shared by everyone on campus, especially not in UGBC.

As a member of UGBC’s Student Assembly during the impeachment, I voted to acquit Guma because it was not clear to me, and to 10 other representatives, that he met the criteria for removal from office—knowingly violating a provision of the UGBC Constitution with the intent to undermine it. This vote did not reflect my belief that Guma made a prudent decision to release his statement without consulting those most impacted by the event (because, in fact, I do not think he made a prudent decision). Nevertheless, my vote did reflect my belief that he was entitled to his opinion and to express it publicly, just as we all are. 

Yes, Guma made the error of attributing a statement of his own to all of UGBC, but he quickly deleted the post, apologized for it, and indicated that it was an unintentional error. And yet, the impeachment resolution followed—primarily motivated by the fact that a person of particular racial and gender identities made a statement about an issue primarily impacting those of different racial and gender identities. Instead of speaking directly with Guma to help him identify where things went awry in the hopes of preventing similar errors in the future, some decided that public vilification to punish him and chill future speech was a better option. 

This is a myopic view of promoting “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” just as it is a myopic view of free speech principles. 

In light of UGBC’s consistent failure to tolerate diverse viewpoints and promote free expression, it should take up Melnick’s challenge and sponsor an annual event on the importance of free speech. Featuring a speaker such as Jonathan Rauch, Jeffrey Rosen, Bari Weiss, or Robert P. George and Cornel West (who often appear together to discuss dialogue across difference), this event would demonstrate UGBC’s commitment to leading on an issue that impacts us all, often in subtle and disturbing ways.
With an annual budget of over $350,000, there are plenty of resources available for UGBC to sponsor this event. The only question now is whether UGBC’s leadership will have the courage to address a problem so ingrained in the organization’s culture that merely noting the problem’s existence often results in further efforts to quash free speech.

February 20, 2022