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Re-assessing the marketplace of ideas

Photo courtesy Vinay Tummarakota

By Vinay Tummarakota     10/19/21 10:26pm

On Oct. 5, 2021, the Thresher published a guest opinion written by David Getter lamenting the erosion of freedom of expression at Rice. In the interest of embracing Getter’s call for reasoned discourse, I would like to offer a response to the claims made in the piece. 

The primary issue I take with the thesis — “opposing views should not be silenced” — is not actually with the thesis itself, but with the inconsistencies between Getter’s writings on the subject. In a Facebook post elaborating on his original publication which motivated his more recent follow-up piece, Getter states, “When the threat of ostracization and collective outrage is used as a means of dissuading others from expressing divergent views, the marketplace of ideas ceases to function.” 

Puzzlingly, Getter recognizes that expression itself (i.e., collective outrage) can silence the expression of others. But if certain forms of expression can silence other expressions, then is it not the case that hateful speech can discourage students from marginalized communities from expressing themselves?

More interestingly, Getter clarifies, “Even as an ardent free speech advocate, I concede that there are limits to what qualifies as legitimate speech. What I take issue with is not the existence of these limits but how liberally they are invoked.” Considering this statement in tandem with a prior piece from Getter denouncing RiceLeft’s advocacy against the censorship of Leila Khaled, he clearly believes some individuals to be so abhorrent that their views do not merit further discussion. 

Getter also acknowledges that the dividing line between “legitimate and illegitimate speech is entirely subjective” but then follows this claim by asserting his piece was “incontrovertibly objective and fact-based.” If Getter concedes that his core claim relies on a subjective distinction, then in what sense can it be considered “objective”? 

Putting these contradictions aside, I will next consider Getter’s more defensible position: limitations on freedom of expression are too liberally invoked at Rice. 

Oddly, Getter provides few detailed examples of threats to free speech beyond referencing the students who wore U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement costumes to the Halloween Pub event and his own personal experience. Regardless, I will assume that these events are confirmation of a hostile campus culture towards dissenting views.

Getter makes clear that “blatantly discriminatory and malicious speech” has no place in the marketplace of ideas. Thus, he is left with two options: 

(1) Claim that wearing ICE costumes does not constitute hateful speech 

(2) Concede that such actions do constitute hateful speech. 

The first option raises a complex question about which forms of expression irrevocably poison the ability of students to freely engage with one another. I do not have a clear-cut answer, but my instinct is to separate the expression of a belief from the manner in which the belief is expressed. 

Consider an individual who authors a piece decrying affirmative action as an anti-meritocratic policy. Then consider an individual who actively confronts students for being undeserving of their college admission due to affirmative action. The former is simply expressing a political belief while the latter’s manner of expression constitutes harassment. 

Tying this insight back to the original scenario, then, the underlying political view of wearing ICE costumes — those who are in the country must enter through legal means or risk deportation — is worth expressing. However, when students express this view by dressing up as ICE agents and a stereotypical Hispanic immigrant, they are not engaged in serious discussion of the necessity of border enforcement. Instead, they are participating in the mockery of undocumented immigrants. 

Regarding the second option, a restorative justice approach to hateful speech is entirely consistent with Getter’s values. Rather than instituting harsh penalties, restorative approaches promote understanding through exposing those who have made intolerant statements to individuals whose lives have been directly shaped by intolerance. Thus, restorative approaches epitomize the notion of exposing oneself to diverse perspectives. I also prefer restorative approaches over “cancelling the bigots” because I personally believe that bigotry is more often motivated by ignorance than malice. Consequently, the antidote to such ignorance is through understanding the experiences of those whose lives have been harmed by bigotry. 

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