For as long as I have been at Kennesaw State University, it has been an annual tradition: a couple of weeks after the fall semester begins, a group of evangelist preachers would come to campus and yell inflammatory things at students, who, in return, would yell inflammatory things back at the visiting ministers. The preachers would hold up signs saying that the “secular humanists” would eventually serve as Satan’s kindling lest they changed their un-Christianly ways, and student representatives from the gay rights and skeptics clubs would hold up poster boards denouncing the preachers for being homophobic, misogynistic and culturally ignorant.
Like the Yankees and Red Sox perennially chasing the A.L. East pennant come September, it was a rivalry that pretty much signified the end of summer; it just seemed as if such emotionally-charged civil enmity was a prerequisite for the autumn even beginning.
It wasn’t until this year, however, that I realized something very poignant about the occurrence. For all of the rabblerousing about the preachers being “hatemongering bigots,” it’s ultimately the students that are causing the most harm to civility here. To expound upon why this is the case, a brief history lesson is in order.
The “street preachers,” as the KSU student body regularly refers to them, have been showing up on campus for the better part of a decade now. When they first started showing up, the “designated” free-speech zone of the university was the campus green, which is surrounded by about four or five buildings. Now, the mere existence of a “designated free-speech zone” is pretty darn Orwellian in and of itself, but just wait...it gets even better.
A few years ago, the KSU administration decided to “relocate” the designated free speech zone from the campus green to an extremely small spot outside the Social Sciences Building, which is pretty much the most “remote” location on campus. Although there was never an “official” reason given to the student body as to why the call was made, I think it’s pretty easy to connect-the-dots here: odds are, so as to not offend anyone, the “free speech zone” was moved to a zone with a lot less pedestrian traffic.
And so, the street preachers kept on preaching the gospel according to, well, themselves, I suppose, and the student body kept calling them every name in the book. As heated as the debates may have gotten, however, I do not think that there was ever an incident of the verbal boxing turning into physical hostility. As controversial as the “clashes” may have been, the meetings were, by and large, quite civil events; the preachers utilized their First Amendment rights to free expression, and the students fired back with theirs. That is, until the accusations of hate speech began.
A lot of people on campus didn’t like what the preachers were saying. Actually, I think pretty much everybody on campus didn’t like what the preachers were saying, for that matter. However, a sizable number of students took it a step further and started saying that those preachers didn’t “deserve” the right to express themselves because their speech was critical and condemnatory of certain people. Their assumption was that speech had the ability to emotionally harm, and as such, there should be restrictions on what can legally be said in a public venue.
A few weeks ago, I saw a gaggle of students encircling the street preachers, holding up signs that read “Make KSU a Hate-Free Campus.” Apparently, their campaign was pretty successful, since the preachers ended up getting booted off campus by a technicality just a few hours later. The activist students had won, but perhaps, unbeknownst to themselves, at the cost of their own civic freedom.
The First Amendment isn’t designed to protect the status quo, it’s designed to protect the most unpopular of opinions. Simply put, any regulation against that free expression is detrimental to the population as a whole, and pushing for policies against “hate speech” is basically an invite to quell “free speech” in all of its incarnations.
The kind of “clashes” we had on campus between the preachers and the students weren’t displays of mass incivility. In fact, I’ll argue that such “clashes” were indeed the personification of “civil debate.” One side verbally made their case, while the other side verbally made theirs. Nobody got punched, nobody got shot, and certainly, nobody got killed. In a lot of societies, civil debate of the matter doesn’t end with yelling, it ends with suicide bombings. Perhaps blinded by their own short-sightedness, a lot of students on campus tend to forget just how free our culture truly is.
Sadly, a lot of people on campus don’t want that “truly free” culture, however. Today, it’s “hate speech,” and tomorrow, it’s “unpopular speech,” or “passionate speech,” or “inappropriate speech.” The precedent the kids at KSU are attempting to set is no doubt a most dangerous and misguided one: at the end of the day, it’s not “hate” that they’re attempting to remove from campus, but their own rights to free expression.