Julia Montag: The physics of free speech

Monday, June 18, 2018 - 9:15pm

Newton’s third law of motion states every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It implies forces always exist in pairs. For example, if you attempt to push a car uphill in neutral, you can feel it pushing back against you with the same force in the opposite direction. Ever jump off a pool raft? I bet as you lurched forward, the raft recoiled backwards. Action, reaction.

President Donald Trump, along with the University of Michigan and several of its student organizations, seem to be overlooking this simple, axiomatic doctrine. Last week, the Trump administration joined national advocacy group Speech First in its lawsuit against the school’s bias response policy, claiming the rules wrongly supervise free speech and limit conservative student expression on campus.

One event that comes to mind occurred earlier this academic year when several U-M students slapped on the firetruck-red, infamous “Make America Great Again” hats, which I’ve come to understand as an unspecified invitation—a symbol that suggests, “Yes, I support Trump and I understand you may not, but I invite you to engage in a political debate, one in which neither of us will win because both of us have rigid, deep-rooted political and social views.” So these students squatted in the Diag, the sunny square of Central Campus that is used as a shortcut to most destinations, and expressed their right allocated in the First Amendment, the privilege of free speech.

They exuded their unspoken yet implicit political opinions, which were later clarified by New York Times writer Anemona Hartocollis to include “that abortion after 12 weeks is murder; that the welfare system is being abused; that there should be a border wall and that the wage gap between men and women is based on women’s choices, not discrimination.” It’s as if they did research on today’s most contentious debates and put on a hat to declare their positions on the matters; they sowed the seeds of controversy, sat back and waited for them to sprout.

According to Hartocollis, at the end of the day, after being called “racist or, in one case, shoved and spat on, for supporting President Trump,” the students in question felt penalized for engaging in free speech and abused for expressing their views, particularly by the University’s Bias Response Team. According to the team’s website, it addresses “incidents that may reflect bias against members of the University community based on their identity.” The team became involved in this free speech case after a significant surge in incident reports, which represents an increase in students seeking its support.

The Bias Response Team defines bias as “conduct that discriminates, stereotypes, excludes, harasses or harms anyone in our community based on their identity (such as race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, age, or religion).” The Team, which is not unique to Michigan’s campus, interpreted the aforementioned behavior – wearing red nationalist hats and instigating political friction – as offensive, as “bias.” The hat-wearers recognized that these carefully worded policies were being misused to punish them for their actions; in a greater sense, conservative students in support of the hat-wearers felt disproportionately deterred from expressing their opinions. Those who experienced similar discouragement, first across the nation then on our campus, formed a group, eponymously named “Speech First.” It sued the University in May for violating the constitutional right of free speech.

The lawsuit claims the Bias Response Team silences viewpoints, that the anti-harassment policies are “unconstitutionally overbroad,” and “the effect of these amorphous prohibitions … (has a) profound chilling effect on protected expression.” As summarized by NBC writer Lucas Maiman, the regulations deter students from voicing their opinions, for views deemed as offensive are threatened with discipline from the Bias Response Team.

“Speech First’s members are afraid to voice their views out of fear that their speech will be reported to the university as ‘harassment,’ ‘bullying’ or a ‘bias incident,’” said Speech First President Nicole Neily in a statement attached to the lawsuit.

“Without the space to debate and argue, students won’t ever be forced to confront the underlying assumptions framing their worldviews,” the lawsuit states, quoting a New Republic article. The same article also claims groups like the Bias Response Team will “result in a troubling silence” on campuses across the nation.

Now, I believe a school has a certain right to protect its students, but a line does need to be drawn in order to determine the extent to which university involvement is allowed. The line may be a fine one, albeit a crucial one, and one whose threshold should be determined by U-M students and faculty. The U.S. court system outlines free speech as the right to use certain “words and phrases to convey political messages” and to “engage in symbolic speech.” As Wolverines and Americans, we must find a way to feel protected yet not monitored.

This specific event, however, reminds me that political discord is natural. Actions and reactions. Applying Newtonian physics, every extremely polarized statement yields one that is equally provocative and oppositely charged. The Speech First members behind this lawsuit, the ostensibly self-professed “Students A, B and C,” have their opinions on the gender wage gap; I, however, have my own, and they must recognize on a campus of our size, most beliefs are matched with their antitheses. I think the wage gap between women and men is not based on decisions made by the former, but rather, based on a long-standing bias in our world, one that started centuries ago. I also believe one can and should say what one wants in the Diag, and one can and should fight for the right to do so freely. Students A, B and C will do this, and they will demand they not get harassed and spat upon, shoved and discriminated against, “bullied” for their beliefs, and I will do the same. I, too, will say what I want about abortions and immigration, and maybe I’ll publish it in The Michigan Daily; if I don’t shove you, I expect not to be shoved back. Actions and reactions.