The subject of free speech is bound to come up in a U.S. History class. This past Monday, as I walked into mine, I was abruptly presented with the topic of self-expression. My class received a sheet of paper asking us to decide who we thought should be barred from teaching, giving a speech, having a published book, or speaking up in class at USF. I’ve always considered myself to be strongly in favor of free speech; the thought of any sort of infringement on personal expression alarms me. However, in class that day I was challenged to think about four controversial people and their right to express themselves: a communist, an atheist, a racist and someone who believes homosexuality is morally wrong.
I decided that all four should be allowed to have books in the library, and if they happen to be students, they have the right to speak up in class about their beliefs, however offensive. The only one that made me pause for thought was the racist. I decided that in my perfect world, a racist would not be allowed to teach or speak at any institution. As my class discussed our answers, our professor provoked debate among us with questions like, “Really, you don’t want racists speaking out on campus? I thought you were all for free speech!”
My historical methods class was relocated that day to McLaren, where a celebration of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur was in full swing, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Color Purple”, Alice Walker, was scheduled to speak.
As Walker took the stage, I had no idea what to expect. I was slightly confused, as she is widely known as an activist for African-Americans. What could she have to say to a room of devout Jews on this holy day? As it turns out, quite a lot.
Walker, wife of a Jewish man, gave a heartfelt, solemnly provocative speech about peace in the world as she described her trip to Gaza. She proceeded to criticize in no uncertain terms the actions of the Israeli military in Palestine. Much of what she said was received with nods and applause, but also shaking heads. My professor left the room because of the speech’s one-sided nature. But Walker’s critique of the Israeli army and the support of the U.S. had me glued to my seat, staring at the rest of the room trying to note every reaction.
I walked out of McLaren with a lot to think about. Walker is a passionate speaker with very strong beliefs – beliefs that many might find offensive. But what I learned that day (aside from details of the conflict between Israel and Palestine) was that free speech on campus is one of the most valuable learning tools an institution owes its students. Many might object to controversial speakers on campus, especially when we believe their views to be offensive or damaging to the student body. In Alice Walker’s case, I don’t believe they were. But it is vital that we keep inviting opinionated people to speak to us. Students need to be exposed to various points of view – even racist, sexist or communist– if only to strengthen their own.