Letter to the Editor: Free speech is alive and well

By: Kamau Chege

Dear Editor,

In the wake of the controversy surrounding ASWU President Tersa Almaw and her deciding vote to not invite Ben Shapiro to campus, a couple important things seem to be getting missed.

First, free speech is alive and well. The principle of free speech was a thriving component of the transparent democratic process undertaken by duly elected ASWU members. Students were free to voice their opinions before, during, and after the assembly. This may come as a surprise to some, but in truth, no one has a right to a $30,000 speaking fee and a platform on the college campus of their choice.

To be clear, no one has banned Mr. Shapiro’s books from the campus library. No one has banned students from forming a reading club of Mr. Shapiro’s writings. No one is standing in the way of students holding a screening of Mr. Shapiro’s past speeches or a listening party for his podcast. There is no reasonable interpretation of President Almaw & ASWU’s action as in any way being an infringement on free speech.

What has been denied to Mr. Shapiro, however, is the privilege of using Whitworth’s platform with the blessing of its student government. Indeed, there is nothing stopping Mr. Shapiro from paying his own flight to Spokane, walking on to campus, and speaking on the sidewalk.

Still, many have argued that Mr. Shapiro’s absence is harming the “marketplace of ideas”. This is perhaps where President Almaw’s vote is being misinterpreted the most and leads to my second point: the decision to disinvite Mr. Shapiro encourages more speech, not less, and a greater diversity of perspectives, not fewer.

There appears be a mountain of concern for the abstract notion of a marketplace of ideas. But very little concern seems to be paid to the many members of Whitworth’s community that would be less likely to engage in a marketplace where their very humanity, not just their ideas, are derided.

Ask yourself:

  • Does Mr. Shapiro’s call for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians or his justification of killing Afghan civilians encourage more speech from students from those places?

  • Does Mr. Shapiro’s claim that transgender people are “mentally ill” encourage more speech from Whitworth’s trans and non-binary community?
  • What about African American students who can remember Mr. Shapiro insulting the grieving mother and family of Trayvon Martin, when, on the birthday of the late-teenager, he tweeted “Trayvon Martin would have turned 21 today if he hadn’t taken a man’s head and beaten it on the pavement before being shot”?

Notably, Mr. Shapiro has never apologized for any of those statements.

If we truly value having a diverse campus discourse, it is clear Mr. Shapiro’s penchant for hateful rhetoric would make his presence, not his absence, the real threat to a free and open marketplace of ideas.

President Almaw and ASWU did the right thing by refusing to invite Mr. Shapiro. Rather than placate the single voice of a vitriolic speaker, ASWU ensured campus dialogue is welcoming to the chorus traditionally marginalized voices that are so rarely heard, much less offered tens of thousands of dollars to speak. Their decision will lead richer and more inclusive conversations for all of us to engage in.

About the author: Kamau Chege is an alumni and a recipient of Whitworth University’s Servant Leadership Award. He served as ASWU Cultural Events Coordinator for the 2017-2018 school year and now works at a management consulting firm for Microsoft. 

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