How to protect free speech in the age of mass shootings

How to protect free speech in the age of mass shootings
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Few campus happenings are more irritating to the public than news of a silenced speaker. From across the political spectrum, the outrage rings loud. “Snowflakes!” “Marketplace of ideas!” “Infantilization!” “Liberal indoctrination!” And, perhaps the most damning accusation of all for an educational institution, “Freedom of speech on college campuses is dead.” These critics rarely ask young people why they act as they do. 

In a school year that began with the country struggling yet again with multiple horrific mass shootings, such presumption seems misplaced. It’s time to hear in our students’ words not a position to be mocked but a story to be understood. 

This generation grew up with mass shootings in the context of a tech-connected world. As they drilled to prepare for a heavily armed intruder to fire indiscriminately into their classrooms, they experienced the awful wonder of low-cost, instantaneous access to information. Anyone, anywhere can in a heartbeat share anything with every mobile phone user on the planet. You can find out how to build a bomb or 3-D print a firearm. And in the United States, most people over 21 can easily buy a semiautomatic gun.  


To a native of this world, the conviction that robust counter-speech will defeat bad ideas seems not just a “pleasant falsehood” (as the philosopher John Stuart Mill said in “On Liberty”), but a life-threatening one. Politicians and pundits tweet “invasion,” which quickly resonates with “replacement” conspiracies posted on the web, and a 21-year-old kills 22 people in El Paso. A young white man googles “black-on-white crime,” discovers the white supremacist echo chamber that search algorithms open up to him and nine people lie murdered in a Charleston church

The fact that much of the information contained on such websites is false, that the documents they cite are forged, that the tales they tell have been debunked over and over, offered no protection.  

For young people who have known no world but this one, the line between speech that invites violence and violent criminal acts seems paper thin. Somebody (and it can be anyone) posts inflammatory or inciting words and, days later, people die. It makes little sense in this context to defend free speech abstractly or in a vacuum. Even if these young people believe that over centuries good ideas will beat out bad ones, they also know that in the meanwhile many, many people could suffer. If we want to engage our students, rather than belittle them, we might consider changing the subject from free speech per se to how words lead to action in the world. 

Such a change of subject would invite all of us to pose timely political and ethical questions, as many college professors nationwide are doing. These questions can uncover competing definitions of terms such as speech. They highlight ramifications of technological advances, and they invite us to see new connections among facts thought to be unrelated.

We might ask, for example: How do words become movements and how have new technologies changed this? What leads individuals to identify so powerfully as one thing (“white” or “liberal” or “incel”) or with one group that they forget how to identify with fellow humans in other ways (as a parent, a sports fan, a jazz lover, a person of faith)? What external factors (e.g. war, economic disruption, or growing inequality) make us especially vulnerable to defining ourselves in stark, one-dimensional, us-versus-them terms? How has technological innovation (printing, TV, the internet, mobile phones or automatic weapons, for example) affected such situations?


Asking such questions can point a way forward on our campuses, so that we as a community may enable ever-expanding, rigorous freedom of inquiry to flourish. These questions also speak to potentially vexing issues that could affect us all. It may be that under current conditions, some rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution are especially hard to simultaneously protect. Legal scholars (and I am not one) long have grappled with potential tensions between two clauses of the First Amendment, namely the right of all to freely exercise religion and the prohibition against the establishment of religion. It may be that, under current conditions, our ability to guarantee one right — freedom of assembly, for example, or equal protection — bumps up against reigning interpretations of other rights. 

I don’t know whether the questions suggested here are the best ones. I do know that current attacks launched in the name of free speech prevent us from hearing, let alone engaging with, our protesting students. In fact, freedom of speech has a better chance of flourishing if we — on the left and the right — would lay down our arms and listen. 

Carol Quillen is president of Davidson College in North Carolina and a historian by training. She is a founding member of the American Talent Initiative. President Obama appointed her to the Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans and her peers have placed her on the board of directors of the American Council on Education. Follow her on Twitter @carolquillen.