“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This childhood idiom echoes in the aftermath of last Saturday’s tragic Tucson shooting, where 20 people were either killed or wounded. Indeed, the separation of speech and action is a concept that was instilled in so many of us as children. Unfortunately, the adult world is not as simple.
As you are probably aware, the fallout of the Tucson tragedy has devolved into a politicized blame game, with everyone from Sarah Palin to President Obama being targeted as the supposed underlying source of the violence. Although each pundit’s victim of choice may differ from one another, the underlying sentiment behind most partisan attacks is the same, with the supposedly toxic state of American political discourse being pinpointed as the culprit. Indeed, this condemnation of speech went so far as to enter my personal life two days ago, when Chancellor Robert Birgeneau of my own University of California, Berkeley sent a rather chilling campuswide email that only furthers the blaming of “hate speech” as the root of the violence. “A climate in which demonization of others goes unchallenged and hateful speech is tolerated can lead to such a tragedy,” wrote Birgeneau. “On our own campus, and throughout all the campuses of the University of California… We must be vigilant to condemn hate speech and acts of vandalism on campus by those wanting to promote enmity.”
In times of disaster, it is tempting for many to draw a causal link between the tragedy in question and some aspect of our culture, as the historical record demonstrates all too clearly. In 1990, the parents of dead teenagers James Vance and Raymond Belkamp blamed the music of heavy metal band Judas Priest for supposedly motivating their sons to commit suicide. Similarly, in 1999, many were quick to blame violent movies and video games for motivating Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to shoot 37 people and subsequently themselves at Columbine High School. Instead of condemning the actual agents of the violence, the pundits and moral majority instead shift their attention to an outside party, usually resulting in severe infringements of liberty. In the 1990 case, the expression rights of many musicians were put at stake in a high-profile lawsuit. In the 1999 case, Congress attempted to pass a piece of legislation that would have highly censored entertainment media. Given this course of history, it is not so farfetched to conceive that our First Amendment rights may be threatened yet again in the aftermath of the recent tragedy… and not just nationally, but in our everyday lives as well. Indeed, if the the email from my university’s Chancellor is any indication, the wheels may already be turning towards a new era of censorship.
As a former intern with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), whose Vice President Adam Kissel has personally written about my college’s case, I am all too aware that universities are quick to capitalize on such anti-speech sentiments to enact widespread, unconstitutional restrictions on expression. As students with a passion for liberty, we may be greeted at our campuses upon our return from winter break by a new attack on freedom from our own administrations. Yet, this is no reason to be discouraged. Both the moral cause of liberty and the legal force of the Constitution are on our side, and with allies such as those at FIRE, we can emerge victorious. Yet, this collective end cannot be achieved without individual action. Thus, I call upon all students who believe in the right to speak their mind to be ever vigilant for attacks upon our freedom of speech in the upcoming months. If anything suspicious appears on your mental radar, do not hesitate the good folks at FIRE, write an op-ed, or even engage on a full-blown campaign against censorship. With the force of the law in our heads and the love of freedom in our hearts, we shall overcome.