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What constitutes free speech? In today’s polarized world, much of the debate surrounding the issue trends toward extremes. We hear the most from free speech absolutists — who support freedom of speech in all contexts — and censorship proponents — who call for the moderation of any speech that could be offensive to some group. Yet the reality is that the issue is inherently nuanced. 

Though debates on the nature of free speech have been ongoing throughout American history, the tension surrounding them has dramatically escalated over the past two years. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the Jan. 6 riot and Twitter’s decision to “deplatform” some politicians, pundits and other right-wing figures, Facebook and other social media have become far more censorious. While private companies maintain a right to moderate discourse on their platforms, the inconsistent manner in which they’ve done so has profound implications.

Although individuals like Donald Trump and Kanye West have been banned from social media sites for inciting or encouraging violence on the platforms, others have been banned for the sharing of so-called “misinformation,” which in many cases has turned out to be accurate. For example, after Twitter’s crackdown on vaccine misinformation, the platform unintentionally banned many users who were sharing factual content, intensifying the debate around the role social media companies should play in determining what information is deemed truthful. Furthermore, multiple satirical accounts, such as the Babylon Bee, were suspended or banned for jokes Twitter deemed hate speech. For context, the Babylon Bee can be thought of as a center-right version of The Onion — a satire publication known for spoof news stories on current events. 

These unstructured and potentially capricious decisions made by social media moderators have left many calling for companies to trust individuals to make rational decisions about the content they consume rather than heavily censoring it. Especially in developing news stories, it’s often difficult to immediately determine fact from fiction, so blocking users from seeing viewpoints deemed controversial or irrational can have disastrous consequences and obfuscate real facts.

All this animosity prompted the recent Twitter takeover by Elon Musk. Promising to restore the platform as a mecca of free speech, Musk’s approach hoped — possibly unsuccessfully — to provide a framework for fostering productive conversations in the modern political climate. By moving to lift lifetime bans and moderate speech in a way that penalizes violent declarations but allows other opinions to stay on the platform, Musk is enabling the public to make their own decisions about the information they come across. Instead of censoring their feed, users have the freedom to curate their own feed and to form their own opinions.

This approach holds not only on social media, but also in the real world. As individuals share viewpoints in school, the workforce and other shared spaces, they should be afforded the ability to freely speak their minds without fear of repercussions unrelated to their ability to contribute to those communities. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Conservative students are more prone to self-censorship than their liberal counterparts, often afraid of vitriolic rebuttals that turn into pile-ons or even academic consequences.

Further, “deplatforming” is occurring on college campuses nationwide, with conservative speakers a frequent target. We are currently watching this issue play out in live time at the University of Michigan, where Ben Shapiro’s scheduled speech has been met by calls for its cancellation. Though dissent against conservatives is hardly a new phenomenon on campus, students’ desire to prevent conservative speeches from occurring altogether is a more recent development. Rather than protesting speakers, students now use the premise of harm to the community as a pretext to argue for the complete cancellation of certain speeches.

In a recent Op-Ed published by The Michigan Daily, the Ethical Investment Front — an ad hoc organization formed out of the Students of Color Liberation Front — presented its case for preventing Shapiro from speaking at the University. Claiming the University must “recognize the threat to safety that Shapiro’s presence holds” and understand that “his presence will only cause harm to our campus and communities,” the group used verbiage suggesting he posed a physical threat to the safety of students. The authors went on to compare the situation to neo-Nazi Richard Spencer’s failed attempt to speak at the University in 2018, which was prevented through the “U-M Stop Spencer Campaign.” While this is an advantageous parallel to draw in their attempt to prevent Shapiro from speaking, it’s critical that we differentiate between genuine hate speech, which is intended to stoke violence, and healthy political debate.

Though the majority of University students likely vehemently disagree with many of Shapiro’s beliefs, his dissemination of them isn’t inherently violent. As a top target of antisemitism, Shapiro is no stranger to hate speech and the dangers surrounding it, leading him to take an approach that avoids the demonization of any racial group. Famous for his engagement with students and open debates with them during events, Shapiro’s style more closely resembles a dinner-table political debate than vitriolic hate speech intended to bring about harm to communities.

While his attempts to “own the libs” by opening the mic to audience members are at times juvenile, Shapiro never calls for violence against any group, often encouraging those who disagree with him to have a civilized conversation about their differences. This approach has put him in hot water with conservatives in the past, such as when he was attacked viciously by the alt-right for not voting for Trump in 2016 and calling Trump’s declaration of victory in 2020 “deeply irresponsible.” As opposed to Spencer, who hurls ethnic slurs and was an organizer of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., Shapiro is a staunch opponent of political violence and a proponent of free expression.

When asked about his organization’s decision to host Shapiro, Charles Hilu, chairman of the U-M Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter said, “Free speech is a fundamental principle of the American Republic… It is unfortunate that some in the University community are calling for the administration to deprive the campus of the opportunity to be exposed to conservative thought, which is very much lacking at Michigan.”

Free speech is the most important tenet of democracy, and without forums to share diverse viewpoints, we face the threat of ideological homogeneity. Instead of immediately dismissing his presence as a threat, a more constructive approach would be to vocalize ideological disagreements in a logical fashion that enumerates students’ specific arguments. By doing so, those who oppose Shapiro’s views could decrease the vitriol on both sides and increase the likelihood of swaying others toward their perspective.

Ultimately, whether online or in person, free speech is critical to a functioning democracy and a vibrant campus conversation. There isn’t one true viewpoint or ideology, so having institutions like tech companies and universities censor individuals with ideas that differ from the perceived status quo is illogical. Instead, we must work towards welcoming the free spread of information, allowing people to think critically and formulate their own opinion, rather than being assigned one. As a place where young adults spend some of the most impressionable years of their lives, it’s paramount the University of Michigan encourages free expression across the political spectrum. If it does so, we can begin to recapture the intellectual vibrancy that was once a pillar of public education and American life.

Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at nsnikhil@umich.edu