Cathy Young, Reason Magazine contributing editor, and Lauren Southern, Canadian journalist and activist, came to the Michigan League Monday night to present a joint lecture on free speech on college campuses. Both Young and Southern ultimately defended the importance of what they characterized as the often abused First Amendment right.
Hosted by the Michigan Review, Young and Southern gave a talk titled “Fighting the Speech Police.” The event was attended by about 60 people, including students and community members.
Young spoke first at the event, discussing her experience coming of age in the Soviet Union and the ways Russia restricts radical and controversial free speech. She connected the country to college cmpuses, saying the necessity to conform to dominant ideology is prevalent and reminds her of the strict conditions for free speech in the Soviet Union.
In particular, Young cited recent incidents such as a recent occurrence at Yale University. Former Yale official Erica Christakis sent out an e-mail to students saying warnings on showing appropriate cultural sensitivity in the selection of Halloween costumes were too restrictive, sparking backlash that ultimately led to her resigning from her position.
“We are not talking simply about disagreement; we’re talking about punishing people who voice their own kind of speech,” Young said. “When they restrict speech based on its ideological content, as I think has been documented, there’s a blatant use of double standards with regard to left-wing and right-wing inflammatory comments. This certainly promotes the view that these ideas are not legitimate speech.”
Young said she thinks certain forms of expression should be excluded as free speech, especially viewpoints that are generally considered unacceptable in society. However, she warned these selective restrictions could cause problems later on.
“When we make the decision to stigmatize certain ideas, we should be very, very careful to draw the circle of ideas which are considered beyond the pale very, very narrowly, so that we don’t end up stigmatizing legitimate ideas,” Young said.
Southern, in contrast outlined a more radical approach to free speech. She said there should be no restrictions for speech, even with terms generally considered offensive or ones that groups like racial minorities, women and transgender people.
Southern has often received scrutiny and criticism due to her radical opinions on many controversial topics, such as a Youtube video “Why I am Not a Feminist” she uploaded in April 2015, which has nearly 882,000 views.
She began her remarks by discussing her experience at a march to combat rape culture, called a Slut Walk. After holding a sign that read, “There is no rape culture in the West,” she said she was harassed, yelled at and had her sign taken away, which she said was indicative of the way free speech is restricted, both in the United States and Canada.
“It’s just so unfortunate that we actually have to do this speech in general, that free speech actually has to be defended, that it’s something that we can’t just take for granted,” she said.
Southern also discussed the role social media plays with regard to free speech, noting the countless times she has been banned from Twitter for her comments about gender and sexuality. She recently created the hashtag #TheTriggering to deliberately post offensive comments to Twitter in the name of free speech, according to Reason magazine.
“Our generation has a complete and total disregard for speech rights, and it is destroying our freedoms,” Southern said. “Our education systems have simply no room for diversity of opinion … Having ideas is not dangerous, being offensive is not harmful, and it should never be declared illegal, ever.”
LSA sophomore John Pillinger said he attended the event to support the importance of having free speech.
Pillinger said he encountered issues with free speech before on campus when he advertised a lecture featuring Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial British journalist, at the University of Michigan to his residence hall. Pillinger said other students in his hall scrutinized and reacted negatively to his support of Yiannopoulos.
“We’re here at a liberal arts university and our whole experience is about being exposed to new ideas and not having to shut up,” Pillinger said.
LSA senior Alfred Cerrone, a member of Young Americans for Liberty, said he attended the event due to having witnessed aggressions against free speech on campus.
“Free speech is the most important right that we’re guaranteed in this country,” Cerrone said. “It’s very hypocritical when people label things as hateful and they don’t get you a chance to explain their opinion, especially when their opinion differs from theirs.”