During his book talk last Tuesday, “What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense,” Dr. Ryan Anderson ’04 said a lot of things that offended me. “Let me start, as any good conservative should start, by turning back the clock 50 years,” he said. I wanted to scream that our best days are ahead of us, not behind us. He went on to emphasize the importance of gender-differentiated parenting roles that only a man and woman joined in union can play. I wanted to describe in painstaking detail how my parents strove to mix and share roles, and how my childhood friends who were raised by two moms, two dads, or single parents are all well-adjusted. Remark after remark flew in the face of nearly everything I believed about family, sexuality, and gender. Part of a father’s job, according to Anderson, is to help his daughter navigate being a woman and protect her from some of the complications of sexuality. I was ready to retort that I don’t need him or anyone to protect me. But I kept quiet. I later conveyed my dismay to a conservative classmate. He conveyed his surprise that “lefty students” like me didn’t protest the event. He was relieved to see our “new appreciation for free speech.”
If anything, though, free speech protections would have permitted me to protest. This got me thinking: What is free speech, and what is it not? Free speech is a legal and political right, not a tool for arbitrating “proper” forms of interpersonal discourse. Freedom of speech includes, among other things, the right to use offensive phrases to convey political messages, to engage in symbolic speech (e.g. burning the flag in protest), or to not speak (e.g. to not salute the flag). As a result of the 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio Supreme Court decision, freedom of speech most notably does not protect speech that will invite or produce “imminent lawless action.”
Anderson and I are equal under the law. His freedom of speech protects him from institutional and government censorship or arrest, but it does not protect him from criticism, mockery, or social consequences. Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in his 1927 Whitney v. California decision that the answer to hateful speech is not “enforced silence,” but “more speech.” I am not an agent of the government, and I have no power to compel Anderson’s silence even if I wanted to do so. But I do have the power to speak and the right to assemble and protest him.
That said, I chose not to protest Anderson’s event because I find his perspective tiresome. Same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. Though discrimination against LGBT individuals and communities persists, I feel his views on marriage aren’t politically salient enough to warrant my engagement at the moment.
But in considering the option, I accounted for the value of protest as a form of engagement. In 2015, Vassar Professor Hua Hsu penned a piece for the New Yorker in defense of students’ rights to protest. He observed how students across campuses attempt to “hold their institutions accountable in ways both impossibly big and manageably small.” If we want a more diverse campus community, we must also anticipate that students will make more vociferous demands for inclusion and sensitivity. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt analyzed so-called “coddled college students,” who increasingly demand protection from words and ideas they don’t like in the name of emotional well-being. Williams College administrator Ferentz Lafargue rejected this phenomenon, and argued instead that students demand new political vocabularies to imagine and create progress: “To be sure, the real world is full of anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism and racism. The question is: Do we prepare students to accept the world as it is, or do we prepare them to change it?”
So the question becomes, how do we change the things we cannot accept? We pick our battles. It doesn’t always make sense to bring out the picket signs. It didn’t for me last week. Sometimes making change does require us to engage in Socratic debate, as long as the parties engaging in the dialogue are equally communicative and have equal privileges in the discourse. But our politics are urgent and their stakes are heightening. Sometimes we have to yell to be heard. To my peers at Princeton who proclaim themselves defenders of free speech, but squirm at the thought of liberal students reacting to conservative speech: What scares you? If you hold that open engagement is essential to academia and — especially now — democracy, how do you recommend we make our impact?
Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson is a Near Eastern Studies major from San Francisco, Calif. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.